People struggle to describe Lyle Lovett's music. He started out as a country singer, and plenty of fiddles and steel guitars still propel many of his albums. But Nashville doesn't know what to make of him any more than anyone else does.
That's because Lovett is, among other things, a big-band leader with a love of western swing, an alternative-country
singer-songwriter, a witty bluesman singing to boogie-woogie piano, and a jazzy, torchy balladeer. So what's he doing headlining the second night of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival at Hill Auditorium on Saturday, January 28? The answer is that his live shows celebrate almost every strain of classic American music, wrapped up in an entertainer's charming package.
In concert Lovett is, more than anything else, a showman. This is true even though he is famously quiet, even more inscrutable than the average cowboy. When Lovett was married to Julia Roberts in the mid-1990s, celebrity gossipers reacted to his craggy-faced, frizzy-haired, scarecrow-thin awkwardness by citing the mysterious hot-actress/ugly-musician phenomenon — missing how Lovett's taciturn quirky-cowboy appeal makes many women with equally quirky hearts swoon.
Lovett projects a droll, unpredictable stage presence. "I'm the guy who sits next to you and reads the newspaper over your shoulder," he says in the spoken-word introduction to "Here I Am," a signature number. "Wait — don't turn the page. I'm not finished." Cue snare drum and piano, then wily horns, then Lovett's seductive chorus. His 1999 album Live in Texas starts out with "Penguins," another comic staple of his. The uninitiated can scratch their heads at the ridiculous deadpan chorus, "Penguins are so sensitive to my needs" — while those in the know listen to see whether he still nods cleverly toward his ex-wife by leaving out the line about movie stars ("I don't go for fancy cars, / Diamond rings, and — " Lovett sings on the live album. "Hmm hmm hmm," a backup singer fills in helpfully).
Lovett is heading a simple trio at the Folk Festival, instead of his seventeen-member Large Band. That's probably a sign that his set will lean away from his usual bluesy, brassy live sound and more toward the twang of albums like My Baby Don't Tolerate (2003). Still, he's never simply a country singer. He'd rather play the odd guy with a heart of gold than strike outlaw or regular-folks poses. Though he starts "That's Right (You're Not from Texas)" by laughing at how badly a tourist wears a hat and boots, he quickly turns into the ultimate ambassador for the Lone Star State ("But Texas wants you anyway"). In fact, Lovett's an ambassador for more than Texas. He's our national bandleader, romping through America's songbooks with a wink you hear but never see.
[Review published January 2006]