There are songwriters, there are musicians and there are entertainers. Few people can pull off all three with refinement, humility and charm. Lyle Lovett is one of them.
Tuesday night, he and his Large Band filled Yardley Hall on the campus of Johnson County Community College, where they gave an audience of 1,300-plus two hours of song, humor and world-class musicianship.
Lovett is touring off his latest album, “Release Me,” a collection of covers, and he showcased that record early, starting with the title track. By show’s end, he had performed 11 of its 14 tracks. A few of those were highlights: the reworking of Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”; the dark but gorgeous “Dress of Laces”; “Night’s Lullaby,” a song he wrote for a performance of “Much Ado About Nothing”; and one of his closers, Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues.”
If not for his stellar band, however, the first part of the show could have become an exercise in generic bar-band blues. But Lovett is backed by an all-star cast, starting with his rhythm section, which belongs in some hall of fame: bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel. It also includes Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, who sang harmonies and played guitar and electric mandolin. Watkins joined Lovett and fiddler Luke Bulla huddled around one microphone for a few numbers old-time bluegrass-style.
Lovett shared plenty of the spotlight with his mates. Bulla performed a song from his self-titled CD, and so did Arnold McCuller, who filled in as a background vocalist on several tunes.
And the band itself showed off its chops, including Jim Cox, who dazzled at the piano. The sound in Yardley Hall was impeccable this evening. It wasn’t hard to pick out each instrument, even when the entire band was jamming, or each vocal, even when the harmonies were in four parts.
Lovett is a wry, dry, funny guy, and he sweetened the night with several moments of humor, much of it self-effacing. He also started a conversation with an 8-year-old girl in one of the front rows that was as tender as it was amusing.
The second half of the show was stronger; that’s where the hits and favorites were stored: “L.A. County,” “Private Conversation,” “I Live in My Own Mind” and “If I Had a Boat,” which elicited as many audible sighs as it did cheers.
They ended with “White Freightliner Blues,” which included a round-robin jam among everyone in the band, then returned for one encore: the rousing “Church,” a song about salvation and sustenance: our need for nourishment both spiritual and physical. It seems safe to say that most of the 1,300 in that room left the hall feeling sated on several levels.