Spend three hours with Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, and you feel like you really get to know them. The steel guitarist, a Fort Worthian who moved to Los Angeles for a gig with Sonny & Cher decades ago. The brass players, who wax eloquently about everything from Muscle Shoals Horns to socks. The fiddler and acoustic guitarist, who first sang onstage at the ages of 4 and 5, respectively. Even the bus driver, who sits in on piano for a couple of songs.
More than a dozen musicians, whose Large Band tenures range from 40 years (Austin cellist John Hagen) to eight weeks (Las Vegas pianist Ben Stivers), make up the marvelous ensemble that Lovett said is like family to him. He clearly treats them as such: Less than an hour into Thursday’s first show of a two-night stand at ACL Live, he gave extended introductions to each member in a conversational stretch that lasted nearly 15 minutes. Offhand, I can’t think of a single other artist (Bruce Springsteen included) who gives that much time to introducing his musicians.
Add more than two dozen tunes plucked from Lovett’s considerable catalog — it’s now been 33 years since his self-titled debut made him a modest country star, before anyone knew how broad and large his ambitions would be — and you have a marathon evening. This one stretched close to four hours with the late but very welcome addition of opener Warren Hood, a local fiddler/singer-songwriter whose family’s ties to Lovett run deep.
Lovett’s shows always wind through many phases, from brassy big-band numbers with the full ensemble to stripped-down acoustic passages with just the string players to spotlight songs for some of the group’s key members (guitarist Keith Sewell, fiddler Jake Bulla, singer Francine Reed). If it feels sometimes like getting two or three concerts rolled into one big revue, that’s very much by design.
A nice addition on this night was a handful of surprise appearances by special guests. Early on, Lovett mentioned that when he’s home — he recently moved back to Austin — he likes to ask friends among "the wealth of musicianship that lives here" to come join him onstage. A ringer who answered the call on this night was guitarist Charlie Sexton, who came aboard early on for a two-song cameo of “Cowboy Man” and “My Baby Don’t Tolerate” that featured some of the ace guitar work Sexton usually provides on tour for Bob Dylan.
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Later, during the show’s quieter acoustic section, Lovett welcomed back opener Hood to sing on “I’ll Come Knockin’,” a song by the late Walter Hyatt that Lovett recorded on his 1998 Texas songwriters tribute “Step Inside This House.” Given that Hood’s father, the late Champ Hood, teamed with Hyatt and David Ball in the trio Uncle Walt’s Band — a major influence on Lovett’s music — having Warren onstage for that moment was as special as the song is beautiful.
A surprise show-stealer was Denny Autry, one of the band’s bus drivers. Lovett explained that Autry had worked as a touring musician with gospel groups for many years, but that bus drivers usually need to sleep while the band performs so they can be ready to drive after the show’s over. The two-night stay in Austin, however, allowed the luxury of bringing Autry onstage, and he made the most of it. His playing was brilliant on what appeared to be a new Lovett song called “The Queen of Knowing,” and he returned for a solo in the next song (“Cute As a Bug”), seamlessly playing musical chairs with Stivers, who’s now in the spot long occupied by pianist/producer Matt Rollings.
Along with the previously mentioned members, the Large Band lineup includes guitarist Ray Herndon, drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Viktor Krauss, pedal steel guitarist Dean Parks, trumpeter Steve Herrman, trombonist Charles Rose, and saxophonists Mace Hibbard and Brad Leali. Playing with Lovett requires a high level of professional ability and versatility, but the way everyone interacts with each other onstage indicates it’s also about a blend of personalities who enjoy performing together.
And when Lovett left the stage to give Reed her vocal spotlight on Ida Cox’s 1920s barnburner “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” near the end of the night, it was clear from her camaraderie with the other musicians that she’s as much a natural bandleader as her longtime boss. Earlier, on “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” another 1920s classic, Reed and Lovett first dueted and then danced together, underscoring both the closeness and the joy that has been at the core of the Large Band’s concerts for decades.
The half-hour opening slot from Hood — joined by his cousin Marshall Hood and Willie Pipkin on acoustic guitars, plus bassist Nate Rowe — was well-received and included both an Uncle Walt’s Band tune (“As the Crow Flies”) and “Sad As It Seems” by Hood’s father, Champ, who died of cancer in 2001. Champ, who was in Lovett’s band for a stretch in the 1990swould have turned 67 on Friday, when Hood and his band will return for another night with Lovett. Best of all was one of Warren’s originals, “Write Your Name on the Wall,” which preceded a closing instrumental that showcased his classical-country-folk-and-beyond prowess as a violinist.
In additon to Friday's second show for the two-night stand, Lovett will be back at ACL Live on Oct. 24 to be inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, along with Buddy Guy and fellow Austinite Shawn Colvin.
Lyle Lovett & His Large Band set list
1. Once Is Enough
2. The Blues Walk
3. Pants Is Overrated
4. You’ve Been So Good Up to Now
5. She Makes Me Feel Good
6. Cowboy Man
7. My Baby Don’t Tolerate
8. I Know You Know
9. Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You
10. Straighten Up and Fly Right
11. I’ve Been To Memphis
12. The Queen of Knowing
13. Cute As a Bug
14. Nobody Knows Me
15. North Dakota
16. Sweet Magnolia (Keith Sewell spotlight)
17. The Temperance Reel (Luke Bulla spotlight)
18. I’ll Come Knockin’
19. Twelfth of June
20. I’ll Fly Away
21. If I Had A Boat
22. She’s No Lady
23. Here I Am
24. Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues (Francine Reed spotlight)
25. That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)
27. White Freight Liner Blues