Lyle Lovett Indoors Can Be a True Religious Experience

Lyle Lovett & His Large Band, Brian Dunlap and Total Praise
Sarofim Hall, William P. Hobby Center
August 24, 2016

Lyle Lovett has a warm relationship with the Hobby Center. Reminiscing to Wednesday night’s audience, he said he was honored to have taken part in its grand-opening gala in April 2002, and recalled the good spirits of his next time onstage there with fellow songwriters Guy Clark, Joe Ely and John Hiatt; the late Clark, he said, got away with smoking onstage after Lovett convinced the stage crew to consider Clark’s cigarette “a prop.” The 58-year-old singer also used his return to the venue to jab at the Large Band’s previous performance in the area, September 2014 at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.

“Thank you for inviting us to play somewhere indoors in Houston in August,” Lovett said.

Lovett’s shows are usually two things: long and funny. Wednesday, the ensemble clocked out after more than two and a half hours and about the typical number of jokes for a Lovett concert. Most of them came at another band member’s expense, but in the insider-ish way family members and longtime comrades talk to each other. (Lovett, in fact, said reassembling the Large Band every year feels like a “family reunion.”) What was a little unusual – but not a lot, because few pop musicians can draw a better bead on religious music than Lovett – was the evening’s heavy spiritual vibe.

For one, the set was loaded with gospel music, winding back from a gorgeous version of the 19th-century Methodist hymn “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” (Lovett is Lutheran, but God doesn’t sweat the details) that closed out the encore through several Lovett originals that dig deep into the African-American tradition: “’I’m Going to Wait” and “I’m Going to the Place” to bring the main set to an appropriately uplifting climax; plus “I’m a Soldier (In the Army of the Lord),” his song from the 1997 Robert Duvall film The Apostle, and “Church,” his 1992 classic about a hungry preacher, to bookend the set with a rousing start. Assisting the Large Band on those numbers were Brian Dunlap and Total Praise, a Houston-based choir about whom not enough praises can be sung here. (Please check them out.)

The other reason this show felt weightier sprang from Lovett’s relationship to Clark, who passed away in May at age 74. The audience found their seats as Clark’s 1975 album Old No. 1, a document as essential to the concept of a “Texas singer-songwriter” as the Constitution is to the founding of this country, played over Sarofim Hall’s pristine sound system. Clark’s advocacy helped convince MCA Records to sign the young fellow Texan; Lovett’s eponymous debut album was released 30 years ago this summer. The Clark songs Lovett chose to play Wednesday were the tender “Anyhow, I Love You,” from Clark’s 1976 LP Texas Cookin’, and “Step Inside This House,” a song Clark wrote but never actually recorded; much later it became the title song of Lovett’s 1998 album.

As Lovett explained to the audience, he learned the song from Eric Taylor, a fellow regular at Houston’s Anderson Fair in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, in between Taylor’s colorful stories about Clark and Townes Van Zandt. The narrator of “Step Inside This House” explains the sentimental value attached to his possessions, which anyone who didn’t know him might think were worthless. In the proper hands, songs are like that too. Witness “I’ll Fly Away,” which Lovett said he had been been asked to perform at the funeral of his former principal at Klein High School, Hap Harrington, who also passed in May. Lovett had been dithering about which of his songs would be most appropriate to play, he said, until he learned Harrington had requested the old Albert Brumley hymn – just one more example of the old principal making him learn something.

Now, none of this is to say every single moment of the 150-plus minutes the Large Band was onstage was so shadowed by death. Quite the contrary; one reason the show was as long as it was is because Lovett took the time to give detailed introductions to every one of the Large Band’s 11 members, often provoking laughter from the crowd. The precise interplay of Matt Rollings and guitarist Ray Herndon, with whom Lovett has been playing since 1983, shone especially bright on “North Dakota” and “You Know I Know.” Cellist John Hagen, his musical associate since 1979, made a fine surrogate Randy Newman on “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” and played a mean Game of Thrones theme. Expert fiddler Luke Bulla figured in yet another Guy Clark song, “The Temperance Reel,” mainly because he and Clark co-wrote it.

Onstage less often, but no less important, was a four-man horn section, half of them members of the legendary Muscle Shoals Horns, and the great Francine Reed on vocals. Besides winning MVP of all the gospel songs, Reed brought a much more earthbound kind of heat to “Here I Am” and her showcase number, “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues.” She did some mighty fine chicken sounds on “Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel” as well, even if the song came off as maybe just a little too Prairie Home Companion.

There is so much more to said about the show – like Lovett talking about his days as an on-call opening act at Rockefeller’s and Fitzgerald’s, or about Hagen’s many shows at the old Sam Houston Coliseum, where the Hobby now stands – but there simply isn’t time. Allow yourself to be immersed in Lovett’s music (or trying to write about it) and suddenly it’s three hours later and time to go. One more thing is worth mentioning, though: If Lovett has felt the mantle of songwriting legend slip from Clark’s shoulders to his, he hasn’t let on about it. That would be his wont, but the rest of us know otherwise.

I’m a Soldier (In the Army of the Lord)
I Will Rise Up/Ain’t No More Cane
Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel
I Know You Know
You’ve Got a Friend In Me
Step Inside This House
Anyhow, I Love You
North Dakota
Temperance Reel
I’ll Fly Away
If I Had a Boat
She’s No Lady
Here I Am
What Do You Do/The Glory of Love
I’m Going to Wait
I’m Going to the Place

That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)
Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray