Downtown Minneapolis was jumping last night! The State on one side of Hennepin, featured opening night for Hamilton’s six week run. The other side in The Orpheum featured Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. Streets were full and high buck Event Parking signs were everywhere. Excitement was palpable on a beautiful late summer evening with the first hints of autumn in the air. Doors opened and the place suddenly looked like a ghost town.
Lyle Lovett is no stranger to the Twin Cities. During his 27 song, nearly two and a half hour show he talked about his long professional history with the area. Local music fans and critics alike found something to love in the tall, droll Texan with the wicked dry lyrics and wide ranging musical tastes 30 years ago. A long affiliation with the late Sue McLean was part of that formula of success. The Star Tribune’s dean of music Jon Bream also did his part. In fact, Lovett gave a specific shout out to Bream and thanked him for all he’d done to help launch what has turned out to be a legendary career.
Lately I have had more than my share of “mature” artists. It has been a bit of a walk down a lush Memory Lane. This is not to say I’ve been indulging in “Dad Rock” or spending my nights with museum pieces. But it has surely been a revelation that brilliant artists never really lose their touch. Perhaps I suffer from some burning curiosity to discover the next shiny thing coming down the road while others stay rooted in what they know. When you sit in a live performance with the likes of Lyle Lovett, you quickly recall what connected you in the first place.
The first thing that struck me was how his audience (vocal and filling the Orpheum to the rafters) and their attitude toward him has changed. I first saw him in 1986 or ’87 with the Large Band at the original Guthrie Theater. Songs like This Old Porch and An Acceptable Level of Ecstasy from his debut were alt country classics that crossed over into the mainstream. Much of that local success was due to heavy radio rotation by the fiercely independent Cities 97. That original audience was not straight country. It was young, hip and more rock oriented. The feeling was one of being out there on the cutting edge.
That’s no longer the case. Lovett hasn’t changed much. His classic hits still hold up well. His newer recordings continue to careen from country to big band to to swing to gospel to blues to blue grass to simply beautiful, heartfelt ballads. Through it all, he remains the constant; never needing to re-invent himself. This particular audience was definitely graying. It was heavily weighted (no pun intended) to folks of a common age we mostly share. They knew the music. The sheer level of respect was thick.
That respect was reciprocal. You immediately notice the respect the 14 members of the Large Band show one another. As songs migrate through genres, different instruments and vocalists get featured. No tuning or distraction when the spotlight moves throughout the band. Each musician fully turns to the soloist, listens intently and acknowledges when finished.
In an industry where feuding egos are a cliche, where members come and go, this band is different. When Lovett opines what a lucky man he is to be able to spend his life not only working with some of the best musicians in the business but also some of his best friends, it doesn’t sound like empty words. Think for a minute of the band created by Garrison Keillor for A Prairie Home Companion and multiply it.
Pros’ pros from top to bottom. All well groomed, clad in black suits with dark ties except for his vocal sidekick, the gospel powerhouse Francine Reed. The leader himself decked out in gray. Musically and visually he has taken a page from the big band era of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Every one of these cats could successfully front their own projects. Instead, they all pull together to create something special.
As the concert progressed Lovett featured each of his musicians. I was struck by how much in common he has on stage with the aforementioned Keillor. He speaks directly to them, asks personal questions. Questions, to which he no doubt knows the answers, which allows the audience a peek behind the curtain. Invariably he closes the conversation and invites them to do the next number with some kind of droll conclusion. After eliciting family history from his long time, uber talented fiddle player/vocalist Luke Bulla he was informed that Bulla had been on stage singing since age 4 and fiddling since 7. Lovett seemed to slowly digest this fact and opined: “Well, all I can say is…stick with it”.
The closing segment of the main set was masterful as he pulled out the tried and true beginning with his biggest hit If I Had Boat. This was immediately followed by I’ve Been To Memphis and the crowd favorite Here I Am. Wherein he stuttered: “Please. If it’s not too late. Make it a…” and the crowd chorused back “Cheeseburger!”
The band provided a bit of everything along the way to the finish line. The first standing ovation occurred as Francine Reed brought the house down with her rendition of the 1924 Ida Knox gem Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues. She strutted across the wide stage, managing the tempo, directing the horns and interacting with the electric guitar.
A dose of Grammy Award winning country swing in That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas) and a full blown gospel explosion in Church brought the main set to a raucous conclusion.
The band returned to the stage and delivered his witting classic She’s No Lady and then his full throttle paean to life on the road White Freightliner Blues.
Actor, singer, songwriter, band leader, author and American original. Lyle Lovett and His Large Band delivered the goods.