Lyle Lovett lives Large and gets personal at ACL Live

Lyle Lovett & His Large Band perform at ACL Live on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock

Lyle Lovett & His Large Band perform at ACL Live on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock

As the years and decades flutter by like leaves falling from ever taller trees, Lyle Lovett seems determined to appreciate each moment just a little bit more. At least that’s the impression he left in a sublime two-a-half-hour performance Thursday night at ACL Live.

Thoroughly professional yet somehow also poignantly intimate, Lovett and his Large Band — which, at its largest, comprised 23 players and singers onstage — reaffirmed their status as one of the finest ensembles in show business today. But it was the personal touches that made all the difference.

Time after time, Lovett paused to tell heartfelt stories about how long he’d known his various bandmates and how he first met them. There was the Arizona contingent of pianist Matt Rollings and guitarist Ray Herndon, who took Lovett to hear singer Francine Reed at a bar in Phoenix one night in 1984, “and my life was never the same,” he said. There was illustrious Muscle Shoals, Ala., saxophonist Harvey Thompson, a fixture of Lovett’s horn section since 1988 who got roar after roar from the crowd as he recited the litany of legends he accompanied, from Bob Dylan to B.B. King to Elvis Presley to Jimi Hendrix.

For the hometown crowd, the sentimental favorite was Austin’s own John Hagen, who Lovett said he hired back in 1979 at the suggestion of longtime Cactus Cafe manager Griff Luneburg. “Did you know that?” Lyle asked his cellist. “No,” Hagen responded, in what at least appeared to be an entirely spontaneous moment. “I’d like to thank Griff,” he added sincerely, drawing a warm sigh of sweetness from the crowd.

More callouts went to the seventh-grade teacher of pedal steel player Buck Reed, mentioned largely to set up a riotous punchline; and to Lovett’s former principal at Klein High School near Houston, a man who later married one of Lovett’s cousins. His recent death prompted Lovett to learn the Albert Brumley gospel classic “I’ll Fly Away,” and the sterling version he delivered stood out in a midset acoustic sequence that seemed like highlight after highlight.

Two of the most cherished tunes in that stretch came from the late Guy Clark, a mentor who may have played a larger role in Lovett’s 1980s country music breakthrough than anyone. “The world just does not seem the like the same place without Guy Clark,” Lovett lamented of the Texas songwriter’s passing in May, before doing Clark’s memory proud with renditions of “Step Inside This House” and “Anyhow I Love You.”

The set was carefully structured in a symmetrical arc, opening and closing with full-on gospel fervor. The 10-piece Houston choir Brian Dunlap & Total Praise helped to propel favorites such as “Church” and “I Will Rise Up” early, and “I’m Going to Wait” and I’m Going to the Place” late. Along the way, Lovett turned over the spotlight to fiddler Luke Bulla, for the Clark co-write “Temperance Reel,” and Reed, who at 69 still brings the passion to Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.”

Must-play gems from Lovett’s catalogue such as “If I Had a Boat” and “North Dakota” sounded as beautiful as ever, but perhaps the most enlightening moment came after Lovett remembered a night in Houston when he and Hagen opened for Randy Newman in 1984. A decade later, Newman asked Lovett to sing on the now-iconic “Toy Story” theme “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” As the band launched into a jaunty rendition of the tune, Hagen sang Newman’s duet role, sounding spot-on in this rare step beyond the instrumental realm.

Lovett wondered aloud, with bemusement, that maybe Newman had written “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” while remembering that night in Houston listening to a World Series game backstage with Lovett and Hagen way back in 1984. Probably not. But in that moment, with smiles beaming all around the room, you could almost believe it.

Thursday’s show came at the tail end of the band’s summerlong tour. After dates in San Antonio and College Station on Friday and Saturday, they’ll return to Austin for a second ACL Live show that will be the final date of the tour.

Set list:

  1. The Blues Walk
  2. I’m a Soldier
  3. Church
  4. I Will Rise Up
  5. Penguins
  6. Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel
  7. I Know You Know
  8. You’ve Got a Friend in Me
  9. Step Inside This House
  10. Anyhow I Love You
  11. North Dakota
  12. Temperance Reel
  13. I’ll Fly Away
  14. If I Had a Boat
  15. She’s No Lady, She’s My Wife
  16. Here I Am
  17. What Do You Do
  18. Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues
  19. I’m Going to Wait
  20. I’m Going to the Place

Encore:

  1. That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)
  2. Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior

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