The band opened the show with an extended intro jam, showcasing its talent and flexibility as individual members traded licks and solos for several minutes. Lovett then took the stage as the band launched into a cover of "Release Me," the title track from Lovett's current record. After 27 years with Curb Records, "Release Me" is Lovett's final recording for the label. Like Saturday night's show at the Peabody Opera House, the album mixes eclectic covers and originals that run through nearly all of the musical styles and eras that Lovett has visited throughout his career.
With the assistance of vocalist Arnold McCuller, Lovett and his Large Band played a selection of songs from the new album, including a rollicking version of the single "Isn't That So," written by Jessie Winchester. "We're playing some new songs," Lovett said, "because when you've got a new record out, that's what you're supposed to do."
Lovett then exited the stage momentarily, handing over the reigns to McCuller, who performed "Gods and Monsters" from his record "As Soon As I Get Paid." Lovett then returned for "Well…All Right," a song written by fellow Texan Buddy Holly. The first part of the show mixed material from the new record with both older and recent originals such as "Penguins" and "Cute as a Bug."
Lovett later handed over the lead vocal to fiddle player Luke Bullock, whose self-titled solo record is also out now. Always the Southern gentleman, Lovett is obviously happy to showcase the talents of the members of his group, and is himself grateful to the people who have helped him in the past. For example, Lovett spoke highly of another great, but unfortunately lesser-known, Texas songwriter, Eric Taylor. Taylor was instrumental in helping Lovett in the early days of his career, when he was playing gigs at the renowned Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant in Houston. The band then played Taylor's "Understand You," which Lovett also recorded for "Release Me."
Casual and soft spoken, Lovett is, of course, an excellent storyteller, conversationally and in song. The wry sense humor reflected in his work was on display in his banter as he frequently adjusted the tuning of his guitar between songs, keeping the audience entertained with his occasionally rambling anecdotes. "Looks like I've brought things to a stop here," he remarked at one point.
Midway through the show, most of the band left the stage, while Lovett, Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek) and Bullock played a couple of songs as a bluegrass trio, the three players sharing one center stage mike. On the second song "Up in Indiana" the band slowly rejoined the mix, and, once reunited, then launched into a wonderful version of Lovett's classic wedding song/murder ballad "L.A. County." That song was followed by "Private Conversation" from 1996's, "Road to Ensenada," a record released in the wake of his much-publicized romance with Julia Roberts. It's a shame that Lovett's brief relationship with a movie star is his biggest claim to fame for many Americans, because he is truly one of our greatest living songwriters.
With a sharp lyrical sense that brings a twist to many of his songs, Lovett is also a master of many musical styles -- a great performer and a true country traditionalist. He and his Large Band are always impeccably attired and a joy to hear. Composed of legendary players such as Leland Sklar (bass), Russ Kunkel (drums) and younger players like Sean Watkins (mandolin and acoustic guitar), the Large Band is undoubtedly one of the great configurations of musicians touring today. And the Peabody Opera House is a perfect venue for the Large Band. More formal than the Pageant yet more intimate than the Fox, the Peabody is just big enough to house the band, unlike the Sheldon, where the size of the Large Band threatened to overrun that small stage in 2010.
The latter portion of the show, predictably, focused on many of Lovett's best-know songs. This is no criticism, however, as a Lyle Lovett concert is never a rehash of "greatest hits." Full, lush versions of these tunes delighted the audience as the band played favorites like "If I had a Boat" and "She's No Lady." The latter had McCuller returning to the stage to interject a scat solo. Moreover, these songs all featured embellishments from the other Large Band members as well, including a great piano solo from Jim Cox on "North Dakota" and a John Hagen cello solo on "I've Been to Memphis."
Following the extended jams of "I've Been to Memphis" and "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)" the band briefly left the stage before returning to close the set, and the evening, with a raucous version of "Church" that had the audience clapping along.
Lovett is one of the great voices of country music. "Release Me" may be his last record for his current label, but we certainly haven't heard the last of this great American songwriter. Hopefully he'll be bringing his Large Band back to town again soon.
Release Me (Miller/Pebworth/Yount)
White Boy Lost in the Blues (Michael Franks)
Isn't That So (Jessie Winchester)
Cute as a Bug
I Will Rise Up
Gods and Monsters (Arnold McCuller song and vocal)
Well…All Right (Buddy Holly)
Understand You (Eric Taylor)
Brown Eyed Handsome Man (Chuck Berry)
One Way Gal (William Moore)
Dress of Laces (Grimaudo/White)
Remember Well (Luke Bullock song and vocal)
Girl With the Holiday Smile
Night's Lullaby (Song written for "Much Ado About Nothing")
Up in Indiana
Anyhow I Love You (Guy Clark)
Nobody Knows Me
If I Had a Boat
She's No Lady
I've Been to Memphis
That's Right (You're Not From Texas)
White Freightliner Blues (Townes Van Zandt)