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From the Country Standard Time Archives

Lovett explores the meaning of life

American Theatre, June 27, 1997

By Bill Sacks

Let no man say that Lyle Lovett has lost his faith in the redemptive power of acerbity.

In professing the bad conscience of that faith over the past decade, he has wrestled with some success against the expectant angel of singer/songwriters' self-indulgences; expressed a curdling view of lust drawn equally from devastation and wry contingencies; and even strayed into the apostasy of unabashed sentiment, for which he is no less loved by scores of middling yearners whose own provisional emotions are magnified by it.

There is, of course, a fine line between the acerbic and the merely venomous; the former may be a careful distillation of the latter, or the after-effect of having repelled it, and in either case Lovett's songs are studies in the emotional lives of people who spend some significant part of themselves to transform the effects of world's rancor into manageable suffering.

The music's true bravery remains manifest in expressions of misanthropy which are deliberately and therefore comically petty, which beg a larger compassion when their essential comedy is revealed.

Lovett's best concert performances serve as a celebration of those revelatory moments: expert renderings of his better material which offer a more focused energy than some of the recordings because his band must taper its dynamics around the idiosyncratic cracks and sneers of Lovett's voice (a musical pressure which overdubbing alleviates in the studio, and not always to good effect). They are expositions of miserable laughter peppered with outbursts of regret and a Texan's nostalgia for a world which no longer exists and may never have existed in the first place.

On this night, Lovett's regular band was augmented by the presence of two masterful guests: an impossibly energetic Sam Bush on mandolin and Jerry Douglas on lap steel. Both players had participated along with Lovett at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival the previous weekend, and the camaraderie they shared on the American Theater's stage was palpable regardless of the fact that Bush and Douglas found themselves dressed in the sort of dark wool suits which accommodate Lovett's sense of well tapered understatement but make them look like livery boys.

Nevertheless, they managed to seamlessly interleave themselves into the songs, offering well-metered punctuation to Lovett's vocal phrasing and, in Douglas's case, an echo of a steel playing tradition which is as old as the song forms Lovett taps in his writing. His virtuosity remains stunning.

Perhaps even more astounding is the unlikely improvisational genius of John Hagen, American popular music's highest-profile cellist and the instrumental voice which separates the "Large Band" from any other touring the country today. His contributions varied from walking lines to harmonic drones to truly "outside" soloing, and every note of it made good sense.

The material was drawn evenly from across Lovett's catalog, including everything from the absurdist Americana of "If I Had A Boat" to the regionalist brag of "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)" to a cover of the Grateful Dead's "Friend Of The Devil" played quietly in 2/4 time (they had to start it twice, actually: on the first take, Lovett blew the lyrics on the second verse and stopped the band - he then offered an anecdote from several years ago when, while playing on a televised country music awards show which will remain nameless to protect the easily misled, he blew the verse of a talking blues which he had to compensate for by repeating the line several times until it resolved to the chorus - he claimed that ever since, it had been a dream of his to be able to stop after such a gaff and begin a tune again, and thanked us for the opportunity to do so, proving once again that anxious self-effacement can make for great showmanship when offered in dulcet tones).

None of the compositional turns his writing has taken was ignored, and each was given its due measure of careful arrangement. If some of the song choruses were worn by repetitious finales, it was because room needed to be made for each of the exceptional soloists in his ranks.

But the emotional crescendo of the evening came from a take of "She's Already Made Up Her Mind" from 1992's "Joshua Judges Ruth" which spoke to an absolutely crushing anguish, an immersion in hopelessly consumptive yearning. Lovett insisted on his own powerlessness to the point where one might have been momentarily tricked into believing that he was performing by way of some force other than his own substantial conviction. There has been much written about Lovett's private life in recent years, and this one song momentarily withered all the collective gossip he has or will ever suffered in a white-hot light. And therein lies a redemptive potential as incisive as it is rare.

The other basic truth of Lovett's talents is that he remains one of the very few modern songwriters to understand the possibilities of classic Western Swing, the kind which Bob Wills played and Merle Haggard has spent much of his career refining, and he explores them in a way which is neither slavish nor half-hearted.

In tunes like "She's No Lady, She's My Wife" and "Her First Mistake," Lovett drove his band through changes which swung mightily and framed lyrics which tore open romantic platitudes with a vehemence which could only expose whatever is most irreplaceably vital about bleary passion, however venal its channels from moment to moment.

Realizing and reflecting on may be a bitter business, but based on the music he and his band made at the American Theater, Lyle Lovett has learned to temper that bitterness and whatever residual disgust it may produce into a very high order of song.