The word that kept coming to mind during Lyle Lovett's concert on Saturday night was generous. Now, this wasn't a surprise. Take a look at the Texas A&M graduate's Facebook page and you'll seen a stream of photos of the beautiful theaters in which he performs, along with shots of guest vocalists, special visitors and even down-home diners that he visits on tour. These are always accompanied by Lovett's note of thanks.
That sense of graciousness is amplified when Lovett performs with his Large Band, as he did Saturday before a packed Rudder Auditorium in a show presented by MSC OPAS. The band -- Lovett plus 11 immensely talented musicians and vocalists, along with a soulful 10-person choir -- is a wonder to watch on stage. And Lovett managed to share the spotlight with each of them throughout the show.
After an instrumental intro, Lovett began with the gospel-soaked I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord. That led into his classic Church, that little miracle of a song, with its memorable images of a sermon that goes on too long, and a hungry congregation desperate for it to end so it can get to the post-service feast. The haunting I Will Rise Up completed the gospel mood of the opening moments, an ideal avenue for the gorgeous voices from the choir, Brian Dunlap and Total Praise out of Houston.
Lovett explained how he met each of his band mates, with many of them going back to the early 1980s. Cello player John Hagen goes back even further, and Lovett shared how they met in 1979 while he was attending A&M, and Hagen was teaching music to fifth-graders at the Carver School in Bryan.
There are some fascinating stories behind this crew, including saxophonist Brad Leali's usual job (professor of saxophone at the University of North Texas) and the stacked resume of 75-year-old Harvey Thompson (playing sax with James Brown, Little Richard, Bob Dylan and a young Jimi Hendrix). Lovett shared the tale of longtime bandmates Matt Rollings (piano) and Ray Herndon (guitar) saving him from a festival fiasco in Luxembourg. And he stepped back to let his fiddle player Luke Bulla perform Temperance Reel, and for Francine Reed to star on Wild Women Don't Get the Blues.
Humor is a natural part of any Lovett show. His sense of it is tough to nail down -- my best description of it has always been that it's a cousin of Bob Newhart's witty, pause-heavy delivery -- but it's always self-deprecating and good natured. Some of the night's funniest moments were unexpected, like a nifty foot-kick routine by the front-line band members during Penguins, Reed's clucks during Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel and a priceless exchange with Hagen that led to a strong rendition of the Game of Thrones theme song, which Lovett credits for helping the cello make a comeback.
The Lovett standards were well represented, including If I Had a Boat, That's Right (You're Not From Texas) and North Dakota. He shared his deep affection for the late Guy Clark with his lovely cover of Step Inside This House. And a funny moment came during This Old Porch, Lovett's collaboration with Robert Earl Keen during their A&M days: He skipped the first verse, realized it, stopped the band, shared an anecdote about a CMA performance in which he wished for a do-over, then started the song over again.
No matter the format -- whether an acoustic show, as we saw him perform with John Hiatt last year and with Keen in 2013, or a full-on Large Band show -- Lovett is about as consistent as it gets in music. This was my ninth Lovett concert over the years, and I've come out of each with a new appreciation for the man. Putting his band mates first, and offering sincere thanks for the crowd and the venue -- even friends and former professors in the audience -- is a textbook definition of class. I'll look forward to show No. 10.