Not for the first time, Lyle Lovett took a moment to note his gratitude Sunday night.
“You’re a wonderful audience … we’re playing six shows in my home state of Texas, and every show feels like a hometown show,” he said from the Winspear Opera House stage, before namechecking dear family friends and acquaintances in the audience.
The baker’s dozen of ace musicians arrayed behind him, the 60-year-old Klein native then launched into one of the evening’s penultimate tunes, a work as close as Lovett has ever come to authoring an anthem: “That’s Right (You’re Not from Texas).”
A sprightly fusion of country, jazz, blues and doo-wop (dig that vocal breakdown where the title is scatted with abandon), “That’s Right” is the sort of song that would seem insufferable if the state in question was, say, Idaho or Maine.
Instead, it’s a wry, playful embrace, a welcoming clap on the shoulder and fine introduction to the many musical contradictions pulsing beneath the bravado of the Lone Star State.
That immutable Texan-ness came to the fore again and again Sunday night, as Lovett and His Large Band dazzled an enthusiastic, near-capacity crowd inside the Winspear. (“This is such a beautiful room,” Lovett observed early into the two-hour-plus set. “It’s an opera house, which I think is pretty cool. I’ve seen opera and it’s hard.”)
The pleasure of being on home turf wasn’t exclusively felt by Lovett: Several members of his ever-elastic Large Band likewise hail from, or live and work in Texas, including multi-instrumentalist and Duncanville native Keith Sewell, saxophonist and University of North Texas professor Brad Leali and Fort Worth pedal steel master Dean Parks.
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Six years have passed since Lovett last released an album, 2012’s Release Me. Liberated from the need to plug any fresh material allowed the singer-songwriter free rein to roam across his catalog. In doing so, he showcased precisely why his left-of-center style has endured and thrived over the last three decades.
Working through moods mellow and mesmerizing, Lovett and His Large Band moved smoothly from the fizzy nostalgia of Nat King Cole’s classic “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” which showcased Lovett’s charming chemistry with powerhouse vocalist Francine Reed; to a gorgeous reading of “North Dakota,” blossoming with accents of percussion and Ray Herndon’s glimmering electric guitar; to Lovett’s smoldering “I Know You Know,” anchored by an extraordinary coda from Leali that hung beautifully in the Winspear’s stillness.
Such moments were plentiful Sunday. Lovett, whose fine-grained tenor remains captivating, is nothing if not a generous bandleader, expanding and contracting the group as needed, maxing out with 14 bodies onstage but also making magic with just four musicians. (“We don’t call this the Large Band for no reason at all,” Lovett cracked as he made introductions. “There are a lot of us.”)
He frequently cedes the spotlight to his collaborators, as he did with Reed, whose rendition of “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues” fairly tore the roof off the Winspear, and fiddler Luke Bulla, whose spirited “Temperance Reel” was another highlight.
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Although the feeling throughout was one of good cheer and glad tidings — Lovett thanked attendees as disparate as Brad Sham and David Card for making it out to Sunday’s concert, even appropriately dedicating “Cowboy Man” to the former – there was also a melancholy undertow, amplified by recognizing time’s swift passage.
Last year marked three decades since Lovett’s breakthrough album Pontiac was released, and acknowledging the anniversary seemed to put the always-reflective Lovett in a particularly nostalgic mood, as the ensemble prepared to play “Give Back My Heart,” a tune from that album: “When you get to be my age, 30 years ago seems like 10 years ago,” he joked.
Time stops for no one, but given the abundance evident on the stage, it was difficult to feel too grim about years whipping past. Lovett’s gratitude — for the audience, for the chance to create with such talented musicians, for the spark of inspiration leading to so many indelible songs — shone through.
Indeed, if such a thing was possible, Lyle Lovett might consider bottling the restorative, uplifting feeling one gets at his concerts. It’s a veritable tonic for the soul in sonic form.