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A perfect gentleman: Lyle Lovett.

photo:Joe Putrock

Of Character
By David Greenberger

Lyle Lovett Acoustic Trio
The Egg, May 23, 2005

Lyle Lovett’s show Monday at the Egg can be summed up in two words: humble elegance. The adjective is applied because of true character, signs of a fine upbringing, and a subtle but conscious decision about how to speak on stage and what to say (developed over several decades). The foundation noun is the result of concise, timeless songs, three smartly attired, consummate musicians in perfect sync, pristine sound, and aesthetically wise deployment of just a dozen or so lights.

The Lyle Lovett Acoustic Trio finds Lovett on guitar joined by two longtime bandmates (and regulars in his Large Band), cellist John Hagen and percussionist James Gilmer. The full house was treated to a two-and-a-half-hour tour through the whole of Lovett’s career. There were now-classic numbers from his self-titled 1986 debut (including “God Does” and “Cowboy Man”) and several from his most recent My Baby Don’t Tolerate (“In My Own Mind” and the title track, a song that makes a big boast with its perfect sing-along chorus line, and then completely delivers with every verse).

Lovett has excelled on three fronts: as a songwriter, a singer, and an interpreter of the songs of others. The first two were in plentiful display in the concert, especially in this scaled-down setting that put the focus more squarely on the resilience of the songs and the character of his voice. The latter was fully explored on 1998’s Step Inside This House, which found him exploring the writing of other Texas songsmiths. Like all great singers, Lyle Lovett knows his range and his strengths, as well as the thematic circumstances he can believably deliver. Steven Fromholz’s “Bears” is a case in point. Anyone could be forgiven for assuming it’s Lovett’s own song, so perfectly do the phrases and sentiments roll forth as if his own.

Two songs in particular underscore the power of the players and the songs. Nearing the conclusion of “You Can’t Resist It,” Lovett stepped back into the shadows and the song burst open as Hagen coaxed harmonics, off-the-chart notes and earthly sounds from his cello. This has become a bit of a regular showcase for him, but knowing this doesn’t lessen the impact at all. “Church,” a song drawing on the robust community dynamics of gospel singing, was presented by just a trio and it still had its core identity firmly in place, so fully is it written into the fabric of the song.

Finally, the long tradition of performers making (mostly forgettable) jokes about the venue has gotten a worthy new entry from Lyle Lovett. “The Egg’s not funny, but the name is,” he simply observed. Brief and to the point, just like his lyrics, in which thoughts and observations are honed into short, perfectly assembled phrases. They are ultimately common sentiments given regal bearing by a smart man with good manners.

Out of Place

Martha Wainwright, Chris Blackwell
Valentine’s, May 20

“These are not my people, I should never have come here,” sang Martha Wainwright on Friday during “Factory,” a pensive, pretty lament from her new self-titled debut album. The sentiment seemed to sum up Wainwright’s prevailing mood at Valentine’s: Who are the people in this bar and what am I doing here? Dissatisfied with nearly everything about the show, from the impoliteness of the club’s chattering barflies to the quality of the tequila that she requested from the stage, Wainwright made no attempt to conceal her sense of displacement. At times, her between-song complaints detracted from her show: A more seasoned performer would soldier through, and not enough attention was paid to the group of devoted fans in front of the stage who were trying to make Wainwright feel at home. But Wainwright’s emotion was close to the surface like that, a quality that also made her songs arresting in their rawness, self- effacement and honesty.

Wainwright was alone onstage for her first song, “I Will Internalize,” a love song of unusual starkness, before being joined by a drummer and bassist for the biting “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole.” Continuing the family legacy of penning songs that air soiled familial laundry, Wainwright reportedly wrote the confessional tune about her famous father, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. “Poetry is no place for a heart that’s a whore,” she sang in one of the song’s best lines. (From interviews she has given, it sounds like Wainwright is plenty justified in dressing down the man who once wrote the mean-spirited line, “Every time I see you cry, you’re just a clone of every woman I’ve known,” about his own daughter.)

While performing, Wainwright’s distraction never showed; as a singer, she was immensely absorbed in her songs, instilling each number with an intense passion that transcended whatever was going on off stage. “The Car Song,” with lyrics that could have seemed clunky and unsophisticated in another singer’s hands (“Green light go/Red light no”), instead had a cool far-away vibe to it, with Wainwright seemingly transported to a distant melancholic place. As she is the least famous in a family of well-known musicians, overshadowed until now by her brother Rufus’ career, it was hard to blame Wainwright for struggling to assert herself. And, she did manage to get an entire bar to shut up, albeit briefly, after dressing down one loud talker (you in the red shirt) in brutal fashion. That was impressive.

Opener Chris Blackwell, a local singer-songwriter, is the real deal: a performer with genuine conviction, an appealing voice and an unflappable stage presence. Backed by the members of October Circle and their earthy Deadish groove, he got the crowd warmed up with a set of lighthearted, but rewarding, countrified rock and blues.

—Kirsten Ferguson

Still Kickin’

Doc Watson
The Egg, May 20

The first thing one noticed about 82-year-old national treasure Doc Watson at the Hart Theater Friday night was that the voice was still there. Watson’s pipes haven’t suffered a bit from the attrition of age—the tones still sound like they’re rising up out of some ancient, polished heartwood deep within him. Say what you will about his fleet and nimble guitar-picking, but that voice, in its unwavering solidity and richness, is unmistakable.

To open the show (which bore the moniker “Hills of Home”), the blind Watson was led to his seat. As he approached the chair he almost looked bent and feeble, but once he lit into it, that impression seemed like a setup in the tradition of Muhammad Ali’s infamous rope-a-dope. He and banjoist-collaborator David Holt, a younger man in a crisp fedora, kicked right into a fleet and lively “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” by way of introduction; for Doc, it came off like a statement against age.

If you see Watson enough times, you begin to notice he’s a firm creature of habit. (This may be a character trait or just out of sheer necessity for his blindness.) His wavy white hair is always pleated neatly off to the side and he’s always clad in a simple button-down shirt and dark-colored workman’s pants (with deep pockets into which he’s always digging for picks and other implements). Watson also always lets the audience know up front that he’s a casual, informal sort of performer—that he’s treating them as if they had just sidled up to the porch of his North Carolina farm.

What was different about Watson’s show this time around was the addition of Holt, with whom Watson earned a Grammy (for the 2002 album Legacy, which was snapped up in abundance out in the Egg lobby). Holt was an invaluable sideman, equal parts Dock Boggs and Charlie Rose; he not only provided top-notch accompaniment, but prodded Watson along with enough questions and prompts about his history to keep the between-song narrative flowing. Holt connected the dots and kept Watson on a steady course.

The first set was equal parts history lesson and sterling performance, with the two sifting through Watson’s roots and the roots of rural music itself. To the old-tymey, haunting “The Cuckoo”—during which ancient Scots-Irish mountain spirits were palpable—Holt added some ominous claw-hammer strains. In other places, he ditched the banjo and contributed National steel, rattled “the bones” (a percussion instrument made of animal ribs), and even got down and funky with himself on some rapid-fire hambone (which involves treating the various parts of one’s body—thighs, chest, even cheeks—like a drum kit).

Holt and Watson also share a tragic bond: They both lost children in the ’80s. Watson’s son and collaborator Merle died in a farming accident in his mid-30s; Holt’s daughter was killed in a car accident when she was 10. Much of the ancient folk and country music that passed through the musicians on Friday night was fraught with themes of pain as well—the pinch of poverty, the blight of anguish and the curse of malfeasance. But there was something joyously cathartic in their approach, as if they had lit a match to a bundle of tragedy and sent it skyward in a bright sprinkling of notes.

Watson also did a solo turn, switching to finger- from flat-picking, and then undertook a spirited set with his grandson and longtime collaborator (and Merle’s son), Richard. Together, they hit upon their usual material, romping through such standards as Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues” and the traditional “I am a Pilgrim.” The latter pointed to how Doc can make songs you’ve heard a hundred times before swing and vibrate like you’ve never experienced. Richard’s more bluesy approach on guitar also added some dead-perfect accents (though, at a few points, it came of more flash than feel). To finish out the night, the three men—Watson, Holt and Watson—took it homeward: three shoulders against one wheel.

—Erik Hage

Overheard:“Just because your name is famous, it doesn’t mean you are.”

—an annoyed young woman responding (under her breath) to Martha Wainwright’s complaints about the venue and the audience at Valentine’s.

Diva Squad
photo:Kathryn Lurie

The third-floor formal banquet room at DeJohn’s was disguised as a cabaret room on May 14, with the help of shiny purple tapestries that covered one entire end of the room. The performers—four veterans of the cabaret world—go by the moniker Four Bitches Barkin’. The Bitches are Greg Anderson, Ward Dales, Nancy Timpanaro-Hogan and Nate Buccieri. They performed the last show of their two-weekend run to a packed house, who ate up every song, every word, and every sarcastic comment from Timpanaro-Hogan (who, at one point, accused an audience member of being more interested in his dinner than her). If you missed this run of shows from this talented bunch, not to worry—the Four Bitches will continue their show at DeJohn’s for three additional Saturdays next month (June 4, 11, and 18). There will be two shows nightly (6 PM and 8:30 PM), and seating is limited; for reservations and more information, call 664-5244.

—Kathryn Lurie


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