Like it? Lovett

by Ryan Snyder

Of all the ways that StubHub ticket squatters can diminish the concert experience for the fan, rarely do we consider how it impacts the artist. Case in point: Lyle Lovett’s Friday night performance at the War Memorial Auditorium. Half of the front two rows were left unoccupied while the tickets themselves sat in the queues of secondary market brokers with cut-rate price tags attached. Lovett acknowledged the less than stellar turnout early on while addressing the audience, as he is so prone to do, bouncing the stage lights off of his guitar as he surveyed his flock.

The low turnout — the back dozen rows were basically null and void — was in some ways a sign of low demand among the pre-holiday crowd, but the legendary singer and his crack acoustic quartet nonetheless turned in a remarkable performance. Sharing some of the same players as his Large Band, his Acoustic Quartet is far meaner and more agile. They navigated the narrow corridors between Lovett’s swing, jazz, country and blues influences with remarkable grace, with a particular focus on sanctified soul early in the set. The ruminating hymnal “I Will Rise Up” erupted into the boisterous spiritual “Church” with a few flicks of timekeeper Russ Kunkel’s wrists, as fiddle player Luke Bulla’s trembling melisma colored outside the lines.

Lovett’s breezy croon — as soothing as it is — has long relied on capable backing vocalists to realize its full potential, and the harmonic contrast between Bulla and guitarist Keith Sewell is like the difference between Hank Williams and Steven Curtis Chapman. Lovett gave both turns on their own music, in effect allowing them to promote their solo material and giving a look under the hood of his acoustic machine. Sewell later offered the highlight of the evening in a dazzling fingerpicked solo during “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)” that, frankly, left his counterparts’ solos feeling lacking.

The versatility of his smaller ensemble was emphasized even further by a set list of generous proportion. His newest album Release Me — a distinctly Texas-forward set of reclaimed obscurities by some of his favorite songwriters — was undoubtedly the centerpiece. His delivery of Michael Franks’ “White Boy Lost In the Blues” suggested the title of Lovett’s future autobiography and “The Girl with the Holiday Smile” was rendered as even more drolly than its content insists. The rest of his discography was tackled methodically, with previously unexplored songs from 2009’s Natural Forces accompanied by their own liner notes.

But every time Lovett paused to share a story, the result was the same. Low attendance doesn’t always translate into a small crowd, though many of the 1,000 or so seemed to embrace a coffeehouse familiarity. It was like the 100-pound dog that still thinks it can crawl in your lap: No matter how many times it’s shooed away, it doesn’t get the message. Shouts for requests broke up a perfectly good Robert Earl Keen story, while one particularly shameless woman likely assumed the identity of an e-mailer to whom Lovett wished a happy birthday to coerce “Simple Song” out of him. Like a Texas gentleman, Lovett of course obliged, because ultimately, at least those seats were occupied.