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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Small Revue Is Largely Lovett

October 31, 1994|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The billing, as usual, was this--Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. And, with as many as 14 people on stage in grander moments, the advertising wasn't false.

Yet, for most of the 2 1/2-hour set Friday night at the Pantages Theatre, what the audience got was effectively Lyle Lovett and His Small Band--the smallness of which represented a large, and largely rewarding, step of faith.

Lovett made the fullest imaginable use of his extended coterie of singers and players, offering a genteel yet steamy melting-pot nonpareil that had ample dollops of Memphis blues, R&B, Texas country and swing. This rich revue is one of the most reliably satisfying touring shows in pop, even though its good-timey high points have become a bit predictable to repeat customers after so many trips through town.

His new album, "I Love Everybody," though, is a marked break from recent form in its minimalism, with most of the songs centered on the reliable folk triumvirate of acoustic guitar, stand-up bass and brushed drums--plus cello or violin for solo seasoning and a subtly drawn string section on nearly half the tracks.

The cynic might have reasonably supposed that Lovett would simply downplay the harder-to-relay charms of the new album and focus on the tried and truly crowd-pleasing Large Band material. But whereas past tours tended to feature a few quieter, stripped-down numbers in a block just past the set's midway point, that segment was expanded to take up the bulk of this show. The full ensemble's brassy sandwiching appearances at the beginning and end were reduced in scope dramatically.

This rethinking didn't just better spotlight current material but also some songs from Lovett's earliest albums. The show no longer must end in communal bluster but finishes satisfyingly on a relative downer, with "Simple Song"--a more elegiac and suspicious, even, sort of send-off than might have been supposed.

This is not to say the show was intimate in every way: Lovett's too much of a poker player, in persona and in song, for anything remotely resembling direct personal revelation. The closest he came to really "sharing," as it were, was sending out "She Makes Me Feel Good" to "the girl closest to my heart" on this, her birthday. (There was no indication she was in the house.)

The tunes on his new album were supposedly all written at a much earlier age, one interpretation of which might be that Lovett is especially leery of anything that might be taken as autobiography now. The lyrics always collect bizarre details that invite the listener to sketch in the missing emotions, but the feelings are harder to find in this collection.

As always, the Large Band provided a myriad of instrumental highlights. Also, a vocal quartet--now sandwiching Was (Not Was) singers Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens between mainstay Francine Reed and basso profundo Willie Mitchell Jr.--roused the congregants with astonishingly precise harmonies on the likes of "Record Lady" and "Church." The setup this time included a not-so-busy horn section left over from past tours as well as a much more utilized string section replicating the new album's delectable arrangements.

The soloing highlight has been the same for years now but never fails to delight: an extended cello turn by John Hagen on a version of "You Can't Resist It" that's so superior to the recorded rendition it's just one more reason why wagon-master Lovett, of all people, really should make a live album

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