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Thursday, May 15, 2014 12:01 am

Lyle Lovett delights

Backed by a small acoustic band, Lyle Lovett captivated a small crowd last Saturday at UIS.
PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON

 

The lack of artistic taste in towns the size of Springfield can never be underestimated. You didn’t have to look further than the empty seats in Sangamon Auditorium at the University of Illinois Springfield last Saturday night to realize that.

Barely half the venue was filled for an evening with Lyle Lovett. Seats within paper-airplane range of the stage were empty. The people who were present left the building with the pleasant buzz that ensues from leaving a hall with melodies still in one’s head and the feeling that $50 for a ticket was a steal.

Lovett has never been a superstar, and thank goodness. Too many superstars take too many drugs and show up late and flee the stage after playing the contractually required 90 minutes. They perform predictable songs and make awful videos with scantily clad women or Mick Jagger or both. They wear their Levis tight and their Stetsons large then wake up one day wondering why they’re playing scrungy casinos while the world has passed them by for the latest, greatest OMG-best-thing-ever who wears Levis tight and Stetson large.

Lovett has never done this, and it is easy to see why. When you look like Michael Madigan on a bad hair day, you have to have chops. Humor also helps, as does originality and confidence. And Lovett had it all on Saturday during a 23-song performance that lasted two hours.

He performed just one song, “White Freightliner Blues,” from his most recent album “Release Me,” a cover-heavy effort (“White Freightliner Blues” was originally performed by the late Townes Van Zandt) that came out in 2012. A pity, because Lovett’s rendition of the title track, recorded as a duet with k.d. lang, is wistfully beautiful in ways that Engelbert Humperdinck or Ray Price could only imagine. But there was plenty else to love on Saturday.

Lovett has performed with bands that have included keyboards, brass sections, pedal steel guitars and a slew of backup singers, but he’s at his best when stripped down, as he was on Saturday with an acoustic ensemble that included cello, fiddle, standup bass, guitar and, at times, mandolin – he was a banjo away from bluegrass, and the audience was treated to a mix of country swing, country-infused blues and just plain country with a hint of Appalachia that spanned Lovett’s 38-year performing career.

Dressed in dark suits and ties, this could have been the cast from Reservoir Dogs, but they played like angels. Of particular note was Luke Bulla, whose skill on the fiddle was matched by a crystal-clear voice that fit perfectly with Lovett’s comfortably craggy pipes and guitar/mandolin player Keith Sewell’s harmonizing. While fine musicians all, they could have put the instruments down – this would have been a dandy a capella group, particularly on “I Will Rise Up/Ain’t No More Cane.” Lovett recorded the song with a larger ensemble on his 2007 album “It’s Not Big It’s Large,” but the minimalist approach, with Lovett’s reedy vibrato leading the way, was better. More than once during the evening, Lovett shot “we-nailed-it” smiles to his singing partners as last notes faded, and this was one of those times.

There were lots of songs about the road, lots of songs about love and heartache and two songs about masturbation, including the toe-tapping “Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel” with its choking-chickens refrain and a haunting cover of Jackson Browne’s “Rosie” that Lovett made his own.

“That was just always one of my favorite songs because you can play it in mixed company and get away with it,” Lovett told the audience after the applause died. “It’s so pretty you never think about what it’s about.”

Throughout the evening, Lovett spoke easily to the cozy crowd with unrehearsed banter about Springfield and life on the road. He was self-deprecating – “I’m the guy who sits next to you and reads the newspaper over your shoulder,” he said after introducing everyone else in his band – and droll.

Saturday’s show was the sixth of an 11-date swing through the Midwest and South, with a performance scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday at the Pageant Theater in St. Louis. It would be well worth the drive, presuming tickets are still available.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.



Setlist

Up In Indiana
Instrumental
Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel
Here I Am
The Truck Song
I Will Rise Up/Ain’t No More Cane
Cute As A Bug
Who Loves You Better
Private Conversation
Give Back My Heart
If I Were The Man You Wanted
L.A. County
You Were Always There
Temperance Reel (solo performance by Luke Bulla)
Let Me Fall
Rosie
If I Had A Boat
She’s No Lady
My Baby Don’t Tolerate
That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)
White Freightliner Blues
Encore
I’m Head Over Heels In Love
North Dakota

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