Lyle Lovett & His Large Band at Ravinia

Ravinia Festival Large Band Chicago IllinoisLyle Lovett and His Large Band

But Texas Wants You Anyway

God damn I like Lyle Lovett.  He’s a real craftful songwriter.  His songs are funny, bitter, poignant, satirical – sometimes all at once.  They are a celebration and satirization of the decadent and depraved segments of our society through joyous absurdity.  He’ll cut a record with some of the funniest songs you’ve ever heard, and right next to ‘em will be stuff to make you bawl your eyes out.  And live, he’s even better.

This particular night he opted for a career-spanning set, as one would expect from such a prolific and longevitous talent.  He did include “It’s Rock & Roll” from his most recent album, Natural Forces, but he made sure to include favorites like “Church,” “If I Had a Boat,” and “My Baby Don’t Tolerate.”  Which, by the way, is a damn sight live.  The album cut is fun, but it’s sort of straight – I mean, it’s a country-blues number with a wicked grin, but it sounds produced and a little stiff.  But the Large Band really cut loose, and made this a walloping, hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners track that rocked from here to Tuscaloosa.

“That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)” is another favorite.  I mean, for all involved: not only is it a favorite of mine, and of “fans,” so to speak, in general, but it’s clear that Lyle loves it, too.  It exemplifies perfectly the pride native Texans take in their state – of all stripes.  It ain’t just hicks and rednecks down there love their state.  Plenty of smart people, intellectuals, hippies and left-leaning individuals still love it, too.  And why the hell not?  It’s got a hell of a history with some distinguished individuals in it.  Especially when it comes to music.  There are few states that could claim an influence as large as Texas’ in that realm: Buddy Holly, Willie Nelson and Bob Wills were all born there, just to name a few.  This song is an anthem for all Texans, though – the ones who vote red and the ones who bleed blue; the ones who drive pickups and the ones who ride bikes; and certainly the ones who enjoy a well-smoked brisket.  It’s a song for Molly Ivins and for Kay Bailey Hutchison.  Which moreover exemplifies the unifying potential that country music – hell, all music – has.  It’s a song making fun of urban cowboy apparel, of wearing your clothes wrong (according to Texans), but it’s also inclusive: you’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway.  The brilliance of this song is pretty impressive.  And god damn if your first inclination when you here it isn’t to stand up and start dancing, no matter where you are.  It is a classic and fantastic Western Swing song.

On the other hand, there’s a song like “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind,” about a wife who tells her husband she’s thinking of going home.  He doesn’t want her to go, but… “she’s already made up her mind.”  “So my friend carry me down to the water’s edge, And then sail with me to the ocean deep, And let me go easy down over the side And remember me to her.”  It is heartbreaking.  And it is wonderful.  The melody is calming and sorrowful and chilling.  “North Dakota” is another one in the same vein: after the band finishes playing it, you just sit there, stunned and moved to sadness.  They executed these songs so well.

There was also a touch of old-fashioned bluegrass, with everyone vacating the stage save Lyle, fiddle player Luke Bulla and mandolin player Keith Sewell, with Leland Sklar (an absolute legend, who’s played bass in the studio on most of the best records from the past 40 or 50 years, including ones by Dolly Parton, James Taylor and Warren Zevon).  The quartet played some very fun bluegrass, and Sewell’s harmonies were both tight and classic.

The set was expansive, the music fantastic, the execution dead-on.  There were very few complaints to be had.  The drummer, Russ Kunkel, was occasionally too rock and not swing enough.  If I’m honest, it annoyed me sometimes: he played in the style that you hear on every 80s pop record, which I’ve never cared for.  But he occasionally really brought it home, so I can’t complain too much.  Buck Reid, on the steel guitar, looked so straight, but played so dirty.  He was outstanding.  Really, no one in the band was anything less than grand.  If I listed everyone that impressed me, I’d list every person on stage.  So I guess I’ll just say that Lyle Lovett is a musician who is accustomed to surrounding himself with talented people, and will not make an exception to that rule, especially at a venue so clearly near and dear to his heart as Ravinia.  He’s been (almost?) every year since 1995.  So chances are, he’ll be back next year.  I’d just go ahead and set that time aside right now.

Highly Recommended

Will Fink

Reviewed on 8.21.11

For more information, visit the Ravinia website.