Natural Forces: Lyle Lovett and his Large Band at Hot August Blues, Aug. 21
While it is true that almost all American music has roots in the blues, it doesnâ€™t follow that every American musician is a blues act. So it was more than a little strange that the headliner for this year’s Hot August Blues festival at Oregon Ridge Park was Lyle Lovett and his Large Band, a honky-tonk poet and a Western swing ensemble. It got stranger still when the headlining set began with a rockâ€™nâ€™funk hit, Was (Not Was)’s â€śWalk the Dinosaur,” sung by the two original lead singers: Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens, followed by a snappy Texas swing instrumental that recalled vintage Bob Wills.
When Lovett finally took the stage to join his 14-member Large Band, it was to the strains of overdriven rock guitar solos played by Mitch Watkins and Ray Herndon. That set up â€śIt’s Rock and Roll,” a number from Lovett’s latest album, last year’s Natural Forces. With its sardonic, half-spoken verses and anthemic choruses, it was terrific satire but it wasnâ€™t the blues. That was followed by a high-speed hillbilly romp, â€śFarmer Brown/Chicken Reel,” lit up by solos from fiddler Luke Bulla and mandolinist Keith Sewell, bluegrass veterans both.
At the end of the song, however, the four backing vocalistsâ€”Atkinson, Bowens, Arnold McCuller, and Willie Greene Jr.â€”started clucking and crowing in delirious four-part gospel harmony as if they were the Five Blind Boys of Alabama reincarnated as poultry. That provided the showâ€™s unlikely door into the blues, and a few songs later, Lovett led the four singers through a stark version of â€śI Will Rise Up,” a slow lament that the leader had adapted from the old Texas prison blues song, â€śAinâ€™t No More Cane.” Lovett’s voice was as dry and sturdy as a West Texas ranch, but his four harmonizers fluttered around him like mourning doves, thus suggesting both a prisoner’s mean circumstances in the present and high hopes for the future.
Like Willie Nelson and Ray Charles, Lovett is one of the rare performers who can honestly say he transcends genres. He whittled down his large ensemble to a bluegrass quartet (himself, Bulla, Sewell, and bassist Leland Sklar) for three tunes (â€śPantry,” â€śIâ€™ll Come Knocking,â€ť and â€śUp in Indianaâ€ť). On the sharp, brisk arrangements of â€śCowboy Man,â€ť â€śMy Baby Donâ€™t Tolerate,â€ť and â€śThatâ€™s Right (Youâ€™re Not from Texas),” the full complement of musicians split the difference between Western Swing and big-band jazz.
On the slower, understated arrangements of â€śNatural Forces,â€ť â€śIf I Had a Boat,â€ť and â€śWhooping Crane,” Lovett combined the dignity and command of his role models. Dressed simply in a white shirt and black slacks, his brown curls piled atop his slanting face, he sang of being caught between gravity and wishes with an anguished yearning. Maybe that’s the blues and maybe it’s not, but it sure was effective as the sun went down on the green hills of Cockeysville Saturday night.