Lyle Lovett fans got two shows for the price of one Tuesday night at Wolf Trap, as Lovett and His Acoustic Group essentially opened for themselves. Lovett spent the first half of the show playing some of his favorite songs from years past, most of which appear on his recent album, Release Me. The second half of his 30 song, 2.5 hour set featured many of his popular originals. Taken together, the halves made for a fantastic whole that alternated from rollicking country hoedown to tranquil folk retreat.
The Acoustic Group took the stage before Lovett, opening with a blistering rendition of the bluegrass standard “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom.” Luke Bulla showed off his skills on the fiddle, while Keith Sewell’s fingers moved blindingly fast over his mandolin. Bassist Victor Krauss (brother of Alison), cellist John Hagen, and drummer Russ Kunkel created a magnificent backing sound that instantly made the crowd forget they weren’t seeing Lovett’s more famous Large Band. Lovett then joined his group (with backup singer Arnold McCuller) for a stellar version of the country classic “Release Me,” the title track to Lovett’s recent album. Next was “White Boy Lost in the Blues,” the Michael Franks number that Lovett said he first heard performed by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Lovett told the audience that he related to the song, since as a young man in rural Texas he was in “desperate fear of not being funky enough.”
This was one of many interactions with the audience during the evening. Owner of a honey-smooth voice and exceptional talent as a guitarist, Lovett is also a remarkably personable performer with a dry, good-natured Texas humor. Prior to performing Buddy Holly’s “Well All Right,” Lovett told a story about the many places he’d been that try to claim ownership of Holly, who was of course from Texas. This included a breakfast stop at a Perkins restaurant in Iowa where the band (still dressed in their suits, for as Lovett reminded us “when you have a bunch of dudes on the bus you stay dressed all the time”) were told they were in the “birthplace of Buddy Holly.” He also knew how to get a cheer from the local crowd; his cover of Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” slyly changed a lyric about Hank Aaron to one about Washington Nationals’ outfielder Roger Bernadina.
Speaking of the “dudes on the bus,” it’s evident how much Lovett enjoys playing with them. Lovett frequently stopped his own playing to marvel at his band mates’ abilities, smiling like a proud papa all the while. He also joined McCuller, Bulla, and Sewell as they each played a song from their respective solo records. (McCuller told the crowd his album was called Soon As I Get Paid, to which Lovett quipped “You’re in for a long summer, Arnold.”)
Lovett ventured into his own material only twice in the first 18 songs. During a peppy version of “Penguins” from 1994’s highly underappreciated I Love Everybody, Lovett and his band did a little soft-shoe routine to Kunkel’s drumming. Lovett added “Truck Song” from 2003’s My Baby Don’t Tolerate before heading back into material that he said had influenced his career.
By song 19, however, the set switched almost entirely to Lovett’s original material, beginning with “LA County” from 1988’s Pontiac. The crowd seemed to sense it was time to stop paying homage and instead hear the man perform his own material, and he didn’t disappoint. Lovett reached back even further for “This Old Porch,” a song written with Robert Earl Keen from his debut album, followed by the jangly introduction to his most popular song, “If I Had a Boat.” Even though he’s played the song well over 1,000 times, Lovett still seems to relish the way the crowd cheers when Tonto tells the Lone Ranger, “kiss my ass, I bought a boat, and I’m going out to sea.”
Lovett closed the regular set with two rowdy country numbers, his own “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)” and the Townes Van Zandt classic “White Freightliner Blues.” After a very brief break, Lovett returned for two songs, playing the quiet “Nobody Knows Me” before giving the band one more chance to shine on “You Can’t Resist It.” A fine country song in its own right, when it’s played live Lovett turns it into a plethora of solos and improv, as Bulla, Sewell, and Hagan had the chance to milk all they could from their instruments. Hagan alternately whacked the strings with his fingers and the body of the instrument with his bow to create an otherworldly sound with his cello before all the players joined in to finish the song.
During the show, Lovett said that Wolf Trap has “the best sound of any amphitheater in the country.” Listening to his astounding set on Tuesday night – the 21st time he’s graced the stage at Filene Center – one wonders how much it’s the amphitheater and how much it’s the remarkable talent on the stage.