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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Wickedly Witty Songs From an Easygoing Lovett

August 13, 1996|CHUCK CRISAFULLI

He fronts a large band, carries a large Stetson hat and sports some unusually tall hair. But what made the biggest impression when Lyle Lovett took the stage of the Greek Theatre on Sunday night was plain old talent. The preternaturally calm singer-songwriter has a pile of it, and his wickedly witty, slightly crooked country tunes jumped to life in a performance that matched first-rate musicianship with an inviting, easygoing sense of fun.

Lovett's touring in support of his sixth album, "The Road to Ensenada," and his songs continue to honor country traditions at the same time they tweak them. With a versatile 12-piece band behind him, Lovett counted on fiddle solos and pedal steel guitar lines to help illuminate his dusty lyrical landscape of treacherous one-eyed women, dove-eating preachers and sensitive penguins. He wrapped his deceptively powerful, smoke-and-moonshine vocals around melodies like a jazz stylist, teasing the most intriguing, and often hilarious, nuances out of his storytelling.

From a rousing version of the Murry Kellum chestnut "Long Tall Texan" to the affecting quiet of his own "North Dakota" to the gospel hoot of "Church," Lovett mixed new material with old favorites to create a variety of musical moods. What stays consistent in his music is the lack of sentimentality, the twists of irony and the light touch. When he sang such out-of-love songs as "She's No Lady," what came through wasn't saloon machismo but a friendly, mischievously skewed sense of humor.

However, laughs didn't get in the way of musical pleasures--which included a remarkably inventive cello solo, a superb quartet of backup vocalists and even a brief, inspired guest vocal turn from Rickie Lee Jones. Lovett remained the ultra-still center of attention throughout, his humble demeanor not quite disguising the fact that under that hair is a very smart, very sharp musical mind.

Compton-born singer-songwriter Keb' Mo' kicked off the evening with a strong solo set of country blues and soulful balladry. The spirited, good-natured performer smoothed over some of his blues with soothing pop inflections, but was at his best with raw, 12-bar tales of woe on which he unloosed his wicked, bottleneck slide guitar lines.

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