The Texas singer is a force of nature
by Vanessa Salvia
For nearly three decades, Lyle Lovett has made performing look easy, executing album after album of country swing and folk ballads. Even if his Texas two-step lost its timing in the late ’90s and early ’00s with a dearth of new material, Lovett is one of the greatest musicians of the era. Natural Forces, released last October, is his first studio album since 2007’s It’s Not Big It’s Large. Only five of the 11 songs are Lovett originals, but those that come from Lovett’s own pen have moments of the beauty that put him on everyone’s list of favorites.
Natural Forces was recorded with his now legendary Large Band, but notably absent are the jazzy horns and gospelly choirs of Its Not Big Its Large. The arrangements and story-centric songwriting are more earthy; he’s softer in his delivery. Lovett’s Large Band provides for a flexible performing arrangement that is hard to match, easily flowing from Texas swing to jazz to gospel. It diminishes to a small ensemble, perfectly suited for Lovett’s intimate ballads, or any song from his large repertoire that he might be holding in his pocket.
Even when the songs Lovett sings are written by others (and in fact, even when he’s being a bit risqué, as on his swinging original “Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel” with its “I’m gonna choke my chicken” chorus), his charisma and cowboy gentility are unforgettable. “Pantry,” which the album provides in both an electric and acoustic version, also holds a double entendre. The title track offers a simmering, dusty sparseness and image-heavy lyrics, with a touch of smart wordplay: “I’m subject to natural forces / Home is where my horse is.” “Whooping Crane” (written by Eric Taylor) leaves you yearning just as the character does, looking at familiar things and vanished hopes for a missing sense of fulfillment. As usual, the playing on Natural Forces is impeccable, including contributions from bluegrass’s best, Sam Bush on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Viktor Krauss on bass. Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta,” with a pretty piano and fiddle arrangement, is particularly memorable. “Empty Blue Shoes,” a bluesy lost-love song, is one of Lovett’s trademark satisfying toe-tappers.
Not every one of his songs works, but I wouldn’t want Lovett’s music to always reach lyrically stunning heights of musical perfection — it’s the flaws that give it character. When it’s never completely satisfying, there’s always something to look forward to, like a dusty Texas trail disappearing around the bend.
Lyle Lovett and his Large Band, Jace Everett. 7 pm Sunday, July 18, Cuthbert Amphitheatre. $30 general, $50 reserved