On the K-State campus last Sunday night, the 2012-13 McCain Auditorium season got going with a Lyle Lovett and his Large Band concert. The telling irony of the event is that Lovett may not have been the most famous member of his own band.
That honor might belong to drummer Russ Kunkel, a West Coast studio musician. From the 1970s, he has recorded with just about everybody with a contract and an acoustic guitar—Dylan, Steve Winwood, Joe Walsh, Carole King, Reba McEntire, The Bee Gees, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Neil Diamond, Jimmy Buffett, and so on for a couple of pages.
If anyone has actually worked with more big time acts, it’s probably Lovett’s bassist Leland “Cousin It” Sklar, the only man who never left the stage during the Large Band’s two and a half hour Manhattan performance.
It is an ideal concert that doesn’t stop. And the Lovett show was ideal in a dozen small ways. The ten piece band featured exceptional musicians, well-rehearsed and intent on playing. It had Lovett doing a little necessary master of ceremonies work, which was informative and sometimes humorous, but the show wasn’t much held up by talking except during a late stretch when the star had some trouble getting his acoustic six-string to tune.
While the program did not always follow a recognizable line of development from one song to the next, the numbers were various in style. We heard country, Chuck Berry, gospel, Bob Wills swing, and a couple of kinds of blues. Mind you, the material always took on the recognizable Lovett moody shimmer.
Imagine “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” as a searching, poetic inquiry and you’ll have the idea. Even Lovett’s new “Release Me” sounded reflective and a little low. Heck, even his take on Buddy Holly’s “Well All Right” sailed and looked inside the singer.
And if you want a gunch, the band didn’t ever really turn loose and rock the way an dance band would at an armory. But that wouldn’t have been Lovett’s style.
The Brillo-headed singer and guitarist has been performing since the seventies, when he was a student at Texas A&M. As he told the McCain audience, he made friends with the songwriters who frequented a Houston bar called Anderson Fair. Several of the songs he performed during his local appearance were written by these associates.
During the 1980s Lovett began to perform and record with a “large band,” alternating stretches playing with some version of this conglomeration with stretches playing solo or duet acoustic jobs. He also began to record with these bands.
Sunday evening the current large band line-up took the nearly bare McCain stage wearing suits and ties. Kunkel, now hairless, and Sklar took the center of the back row with a grand piano and the pedal steel on risers to their right and left. When the full group was on stage, the front line ran electric guitar; acoustic guitar or mandolin; cello; Lovett, second singer Arnold McCullough; and fiddle.
These last two performers each got a solo turn doing a song from a solo album. And the large band feted McCullough with a chorus of “Happy Birthday.” After a blitz of perhaps nearly half the evening’s twenty-eight songs, individual musicians began leaving the stage for stretches when their instruments weren’t required. I believe at least four musicians played on the least orchestrated number.
The songs—which ran from “If I Had a Boat” and novelty numbers to ballads and a song Lovett wrote for a Los Angeles production of “Much Ado About Nothing”—usually featured harmony singing on their choruses and were studded with paired instrumental solos, of which I found the Fender and piano ones to be most impressive and satisfying..
The show ended with a “T for Texas” clone and, as an encore, a gospel number. By that time this fine band of experienced and disciplined old musicians had, in their quiet way, worn the audience out. But somehow we got to our feet in a final act of recognition for a first-rate evening’s entertainment.