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Paul Mann: Lyle Lovett Brings Dark Humor to Sleepy Santa Barbara Bowl

The musician livens up a Sunday afternoon with his witty songs

On a sleepy Sunday afternoon on the last day of Fiesta, a crowd much more mature than at recent concerts ascended the hill to the Santa Barbara Bowl. By nightfall, a thick ocean mist crept right up to the edge of the half-filled venue, somehow a perfect setting for the dark, witty songs of Lyle Lovett.

But before the late summer light faded, fans were treated to an opening set by one of Lyle’s newest protege’s, Madeleine Peyroux.

The bluesy jazz singer is constantly compared to the legendary Billie Holiday in style and substance. Indeed, Peyroux and her quartet of accomplished musicians, sans electronic instruments, would fit right in to a 1930s Paris cabaret. But this singer with an old soul and her powerful group have developed a unique sound, even while carrying the torch for the jazz blues tradition.

Much like Lovett, Peyroux spent her formative music years as an expatriate American in Europe. Moving to Paris with her mother when she was 13, she soon began singing with street musicians. Those formative years influenced her style and language, and she can perform flawlessly as a singer in French or English, adding to the allure of her sounds. Her fifth album, “Bare Bones,” was recently released and highlights her brilliant songwriting abilities, with dark sarcastic lyrics not unlike those of Lovett. The power and range of her voice have made her a much sought-after collaborator in the music world.

She and her band turned in a solid set at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday, with most of the crowd uncharacteristically seated and attentive for the opening act.

As darkness and fog crept up to the venue, Lovett’s Large Band took the stage and blasted out an opening medley. The Large Band, aptly named, is a consortium of accomplished musicians from many genres and disciplines. Lovett, although often identified as a country singer, is much more musically diversified. He often collaborates with musicians of different disciplines, and has developed a unique style of Americana music. Many of his collaborations end up with the musicians joining his Large Band. To be sure, Lovett’s music is rooted in his Texas country music background, but also includes influences as diverse as rock, blue grass, gospel, blues, jazz and even big-band beats.

Lovett grew up in Texas and began playing coffeehouses there in the late 1970s after attending Texas A&M University. He then moved to Rothenberg, Germany, in the early ‘80s to continue his college studies. It was there that he began to experiment with different styles of music. In Europe, musical barriers are much more transparent than in the U.S. music scene, and it is not uncommon for different genres to perform on the same bill. A jazz band, rock band and folk singer might all share the stage at a single event.

Lovett returned to the United States and by the mid-‘80s had begun a successful recording career that eventually garnered four Grammys and a catalog of 13 albums. Continually exploring new musical ground and collaborating with a host of musicians from all over the musical map, his albums always surprised his fans with fresh sounds. The 1996 release of “The Road To Ensenada” even featured sounds as diverse as bossa nova, Cajun and honky-tonk.

But there is one universal theme that has remained consistent throughout his musical career, and that is the intelligent humor exhibited in his masterful songwriting abilities.

From the opening “Choke My Chicken” to a sarcastic rendition of “Stand By Your Man,” his sarcasm shines through meaningful lyrics, mostly dealing with the working-class injustices of U.S. society. If Lovett ever decides to give up his musical career, he could surely have one in stand-up comedy. Probably emerging from his decades of experience as a Hollywood actor, his has developed an uncanny ability of stymied storytelling that precedes many of his songs with a hilarious explanation, sending the audience into fits of laughter. This self-effacing practice heightens his endearing connection with longtime fans, who appreciate the keen sense of intellect in his music.

Surrounded by a sea of talented musicians and singers in the Large Band, like the incomparable blues diva Francine Reed, Lovett leads the group like a conductor, through a rich musical landscape of American music, covering nearly the entire 20th century.

A surprise appearance by Peyroux added a new layer to the many flavors of Lovett and his band. The house may have been only half full for the show Sunday night, but the band played with the same intensity and sincerity that they did when I saw them headline the Austin City Limits Music Festival, in front of 50,000 Aggies, a few years ago. Playing past the 10 p.m. curfew time, none of his local fans went home disappointed from the fascinating performance.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributor.

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