Large and in charge: Lyle Lovett’s show is a spiritual experience

by Ryan Snyder

When Lyle Lovett took the stage for his Aug. 19 performance at the Durham Performing Arts Center, he wasn’t necessarily the best musician onstage. That honor could have been bestowed on anyone from famed sideman Leland Sklar, scintillating guitarist Mitch Watkins or fiddle virtuoso Luke Bulla. It was even difficult to say he was the best singer of his 14-member Large Band, especially with a quartet of powerful soul singers regularly taking the vocal lead. It goes without saying that he wasn’t the best looking of them all, not that the former Mr. Julia Roberts has ever been thwarted in that regard. He hasn’t even charted a song in 13 years and much of his recent release

As Lovett led the crowd into new piece “It’s Rock and Roll,” the other 10 members of his accompaniment took the stage and began putting their own signature on the song. The spotlight quickly shifted from Lovett to no fewer than four solos successive soloists, including a duel by Watkins and fellow guitarist Ray Herndon, both standing at opposite ends of the stage and both with highly distinctive tones.

Throughout the night, Lovett was quick to step back and let his Large Band fill the room with instrumental breakdowns and brilliant vocal harmonies, all running the gamut of blues, bluegrass, gospel, soul and pop. That included, by the way, beautiful asides that featured the deep bass vocals of Willie Green Jr., the uplifting tenor of Arnold McCuller, the wide-eyed countenance and Spinners-esque steps and twirls of Sir Harry Bowen, and deftly timed and immensely powerful interjections from Sweet Pea Atkinson, the only one ofthe four voicesto be seated.

All,save for Green,have lent their talents to Lovett for more than20 years.Lovett engaged the audience at length betweensongs, transcending the usual canned banter thanmany performers resort to in every city with genuinestorytelling that only mattered to the crowdbefore him. He talked of playing the Cave as asolo act in his earliest days and of the infl uencethat he derived from Sugar Hill Records, thoughoften it was the occasional comedic aside thatgot the biggest reaction. Hagen, who often disappearedoffstage when his instrument was needed,was asked, “Where do you go?” “Downstairs. Ilike to have a little quiet time,” he dryly repliedto huge laughter.It was hard for any fan to come away disappointedwith the set list, as Lovett ran throughso many old favorites like “That’s Right(You’re Not From Texas),” “If I Had a Boat,”“Cowboy Man,” “My Baby Don’t Tolerate”and, of course, “She’s No Lady (She’s MyWife).”

It often took a highly caffeinated brainto stay with the band through the mid-showgrift into his less energetic numbers, but hesmartly waylaid wandering minds withthe bookended high comedy of new tracks“Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel” (“I’m gonnachoke my chicken ‘til the sun comes up”)and the tawdry innuendo of “Pantry.”“I’ve had the fries of France/ the melonsof Verona/ the sausage of Gdansk(!),” hesang, huddled around a single mic withBulla, Sewell and Sklar bluegrass-style.

It was really exhausting to behold it all,but Lovett saved the most gripping piecesfor the end. After a wizardly cello solo byHagan, he led off his encore with the heavyheartedLonnie Donegan spiritual “Ain’t NoMore Cane,” a piece that allowed his fouramazing vocalists to display the full intensityof their voices one at a time. The showended on “Church,” a gospel rave-up fromone of his most beloved releases, JoshuaJudges Ruth, that had sent the crowd to itsfeet with hands clapping and then home,utterly spent and totally satisfied.