Lyle Lovett and His Large Band
North Charleston Performing Arts Center
If ever there was a worthwhile use of four backup singers, Lyle Lovett has found it in His Large Band. And if ever a band deserved to tour with three tour buses, it's the 15-piece ensemble the tall Texan takes on the road with him.
Complete with two electric guitars, mandolin, fiddle, cello, electric bass, grand piano, a full set of drums, congas, steel pedal guitar, and the four singers — plus Lovett himself — all dressed in suits, the group harkens back to a time when big bands were the norm. And, oh, those backup singers.
The African-American quartet, all hailing from L.A., were anchored by the crooning of Sweet Pea Atkinson, who sat on a stool in his red velvet hat. His three partners harmonized, coordinating their dancing in time with the breaks between vocals. There was always something fun to look at.
Lovett drew heavily from his latest album, Natural Forces. "It's Rock 'n' Roll" came out early, with spot beams alternately illuminating the two lead guitarists on either end of the stage as they shredded solos on their Fender Stratocasters. The "Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel" that followed featured heavy bawking by the singers, whom Lovett joked had visited the Kickin' Chicken earlier in the day.
"Chicken unifies us all," said Lovett. "It's a common bond. Chicken is neither Republican nor Democrat."
The singer spoke often between songs, praising Charleston and the beautiful day he enjoyed here before the show. He also acknowledged his friends — like fellow Texan Ben Berryhill, owener of the Red Drum Gastropub in Mt. Pleasant, even slipping "Red Drum" into a song lyric later in the show.
Lovett played his classics, including "My Baby Don't Tolerate" and "That's Right (You're Not from Texas)," but the show's main highlight came when the band stripped down to a bluegrass four-piece of mandolin, fiddle, bass, and guitar to perform the moving title track of his new album. That was followed by one of two Townes Van Zandt covers, the beautiful "Loretta."
Throughout the night, Lovett paid tribute to his heroes, including Willie Nelson ("Funny How Time Slips Away") and Upstate S.C.'s Uncle Walt's Band. He shared vocals with mandolin player Keith Sewell, and he got the audience laughing when he acknowledged how close his lips are to another man's mouth when they share a microphone.
"It tells you a lot about the bluegrass bands that stay together year after year," he laughed.
When the whole band retook the stage, it was cellist John Hagen's turn to shine, wowing the audience with a supremely creative two-minute solo.
The band received standing ovations after nearly each of their last five songs. Each of the group's members showed off a mastery of their instrument, and the large ensemble never overplayed. Lyle Lovett and His Large Band may just be the most entertaining non-theatrical group on the road right now.