And then there are artists like Lyle Lovett.
Lovett and his Acoustic Group escaped the freezing temperatures surrounding the rest of the country, heading to the historic Tampa Theatre to play their final show of the year. It was a perfect setting, the ornate classic theater, complete with balcony and gilded edges providing some additional color to the eclectic, nearly sold-out crowd that had come together to watch the soft-spoken Texan work his magic.
The show was wonderfully without frills, opening with a simple statement, "And now, Lyle Lovett and his Acoustic Group," which flowed into a full-on jam led by fiddle player Luke Bulla. Lovett didn't even appear until the song was over, letting his musical cohorts set the stage for what was to come with amazingly tight musicianship that didn't miss a beat to which the crowd responded with praise. Yet when Lovett hit the stage for the next song, they roared even more as they should because he sounded as good as ever.
The set list drew from all over the storied artist's career, from tracks like Release Me and Isn't That So from his most recent release to North Dakota and a hauntingly beautiful rendition of Nobody Knows Me. Of course, the band also ran through fan favorites such as My Baby Don't Tolerate, L.A. County, and If I Were the Man You Wanted. That's Right (You're Not From Texas) was another favorite, getting toes tapping but the playful penguin dance that accompanied the hit Penguins really got the audience involved as did If I Had a Boat, which had everyone singing along.
Lovett kept the talk to a minimum, which probably worked better given the fired up and occasionally raucous crowd yet, when he did take the mic to share an occasional anecdote, such as he and cellist John Hagen humorously sharing a lone motel bed on a frosty day in the early years, the sound was so quiet that many of the artist's stories were lost to crowd noise and more. But for those looking for plenty of music, this strategy worked wonderfully well as the band rocked through a two-hour plus set with poise.
One of the beautiful aspects of Lovett's show is his humility and, by and large, he's as ready to step out of the spotlight, letting his band shine, as he is to stay in. Many of the songs saw him letting Bulla, Hagen and guitar/mandolin aficionado Keith Sewell run havoc on their respective instruments, Lovett seeming to simply revel in the artistry of his friends. Mid-set found a chance for both Bulla and Sewell to play their own tracks, Bulla rocking a to-be-released fiddle reel while Sewell found himself backed by the band, Lovett singing background vocals, on his original Let Me Fall.
The humility of Lovett carried on through into the encore as well as the artist again faded to the background, letting Bulla, Sewell and Hagan once more strut their stuff, each artist's performance seeming to draw energy from the one before him. Hagen really rose to the top, coaxing some amazing sounds out of his cello before the song and the evening came to a close, leaving the audience satisfied, at least until next time.