Quirky is as quirky does

Those who’ve not taken time to listen closely to Lyle Lovett’s music peg him “quirky” for all the wrong reasons — the superficial ones. There’s his hair: think Seinfeld’s Kramer with an edge. Then there are his acting forays — like his role as the suspiciously but harmlessly bizarre baker in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, for instance. And, of course, his lanky frame and taut, country-Van Gogh sort of face (which, come to think of it, also recall Kramer). Finally, blame the media, who tend to ignore Lovett’s songs and focus instead on his famous ex-wife and his penchant for motorcycles.

But as those who’ll hear Lovett in his upcoming Asheville concert will attest, the quirkiness is not just skin deep. It’s a genuine aspect of the man that instills his live and recorded performances with an offbeat honesty, placing his music outside the norm — yet not too far out.

Thankfully, Lovett’s eccentricity is never a cover for poor musicianship.

The performer’s lyrical prowess is readily apparent on his latest release, Live in Texas (Curb/MCA, 1999), a live primer of songs spanning his entire career. That storied saga began when Lovett was still in his teens (“he graduated from high school a semester early,” blushes one fan’s Web site), starting with gigs in Houston clubs that found him covering the songs of his favorite Texas artists. Moving on to Austin, Lovett began hanging out with other young songwriters — among them Eric Taylor, Nanci Griffith and Vince Bell. In 1984, he traveled to Nashville to sing backing vocals on Griffith’s third album, Once in a Very Blue Moon (Philo/Rounder), on which she sings Lovett’s song “If I Were the Woman You Wanted.” Not long after, he landed his first record deal wih Curb/MCA, which released his self-titled debut album in 1986.

Live in Texas opens with “Penguins,” a song Lovett wrote early in his career and released as part of the unusual I Love Everybody (Curb/MCA, 1994). “I don’t go for fancy cars or diamond rings,” croons the native Texan. “I go for penguins … because penguins are so sensitive to my needs.” Off-the-wall, yes, but backed by such soulful arrangements that the weird, is-it-really-there sexual subtext seems OK. Whether it really is or not (the sex, that is), the rest of Live in Texas is a bluesy, razzle-dazzle production that quickly returns to familiar themes of hometowns, good times and the perennial saga of boy-lusts-after-girl, boy-meets-girl, boy-misunderstands-girl.

Throughout, the disc — featuring 14 songs chosen from 60 recorded during 1995 shows in San Antonio and Austin — evinces a flow and continuity often absent from live recordings. It builds rhythm with songs from Joshua Judges Ruth (Curb/MCA, 1992), such as “I’ve Been to Memphis,” the revival-style “Church” and the lovely “North Dakota,” which includes vocals by Rickie Lee Jones. Other tunes are classics-in-the-making — witness “She’s No Lady”: “The preacher asked her and she said ‘I do,’/The preacher asked me and she said, ‘Yes, he does, too.'”

Lovett is a straight-shooter who often takes chances with his lyrics; his country-influenced “If I Had a Boat” — in which Tonto tells the Lone Ranger to “Kiss my ass, I bought a boat, I’m going out to sea” — has won critical acclaim and at least one letter promising him “an old-fashioned Alabama ass-whipping” if he shows his face in that state. Another memorable track is a rousing Texas-swing number called “That’s Right (You’re Not from Texas),” a song Lovett tested on the road for a couple of years before recording it.

Though longtime fans may be disappointed that only one new song appears on the album (“Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” featuring Francine Reed, is arguably the CD’s climax), Live in Texas compensates by providing a pleasingly concertlike experience. Lovett’s Large Band is 17 members strong (a considerably smaller version will appear in Asheville), and — unlike most bands its size — the players complement each other, rather than competing for solos. Featured musicians include keyboardist Matt Rollings, guitarist Ray Herndon, percussionist James Gilmer and cellist John Hagen, all of whom have been with Lovett since his first album.

“There’s a real continuity with the people in the band, and with the people I have around me in the studio,” says Lovett, who has worked with producer Billy Williams on all of his albums. The album’s jacket testifies to the truth of that assertion — Lovett shares the spotlight with Williams, all of the band members and the key technicians, everyone getting equal space.

“Every time I stand onstage with the Large Band, it feels new to me,” Lovett has said. “I guess I still think of myself as a guy with his guitar — and getting to be up there with all those musicians, with the singers and the horn section, it’s always a thrill to me. Every time I do it, it feels like a special occasion.”

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