Lyle Lovett performs Wednesday at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Photos by Robert Ker

Lyle Lovett is a man out of time. Appearing in the mid-1980s like he just walked off the set of a David Lynch production, Lovett helped plant the seeds for the alternative country movement with his wry songwriting, sophisticated composition, and attention to tradition – particularly that of music from his native Texas.

He seemed old for his age when he was young, and now that he’s older – 64 as of his performance Wednesday at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium – he seems young for his more advanced age.

Over the decades, trends in music have shifted numerous times, and he’s found himself going from a forebear of Americana’s future to a keeper of the flame for past styles. You don’t hear Western swing and traditional jump blues terribly often in Portland, but you do when Lyle Lovett and his Large Band’s tour buses are parked on Congress Street. On this August evening, concertgoers were treated to those styles in addition to country, gospel, soul, bluegrass, jazz, classic pop, Irish folk songs and a lot more – all swirled together, sometimes in the same song.

Touring behind “12th of June,” his first album in a decade, Lovett brought his full Large Band to the Merrill stage. Comprising 14 musicians in addition to Lovett himself, the Large Band features a slowly evolving array of players, including grand piano, fiddle, pedal steel, a full horn section and a trio of male gospel singers.

Lovett gave his Large Band space to shine.

The new album exists as a showcase for the Large Band, and in that respect, it serves the same function as Lovett’s concerts; while it is undoubtedly his show, he’s quite democratic in how he shares the stage with his bandmates, letting them play their own songs and giving each member moments to call their own. Indeed, he summons the lost art of the bandleader, communicating musical cues to his colleagues with subtle turns and glances – visible even in the back row thanks to Lovett’s striking profile – such as in “I’ve Been To Memphis,” within which he gifted each bandmate a few bars to perform solo.

Despite performing with so many musicians behind him, you never feel bludgeoned by a wall of sound. Rather, thanks to an expert sound mix and the acoustics of the Merrill (a room complimented by Lovett as one of the best in the world), you’re treated to a supple, nuanced blend of sonics that allows you to train your ear on whichever instrument suits you. This mix also allows for quieter songs – such as the folk-pop classic “If I Had a Boat” or the delicate romantic ballad “Nobody Knows Me” – to occupy similar space as the more raucous workouts, such as the sultry blues of the crowd favorite “Here I Am” or the rollicking swing of “Cute As a Bug.”

The set provided a fine balance of Lovett’s skills as both a songwriter and an interpreter of others’ work, including covers of songs by Nat King Cole, Don Redman, and Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers. These are not new songs, of course, and there was a vintage professionalism to the whole show; the band members themselves were resplendent in black suits. That is not to say the performance felt mired in the past. The atmospheric gospel of live staple “I Will Rise Up” was as alive and gripping as anything you’ll witness, and “Pants is Overrated” is a goofball nod to fatherhood, which is a relatively recent development in Lovett’s life.

That he can pair such a grave song with one so silly is part of his whole approach to his career, much as the way he deftly balances the past and the future, as if by magic.

Robert Ker is a freelance writer in Portland. He can be reached at [email protected].


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