- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Watching Lyle Lovett and His Large Band perform a dozen or so songs from “Smile,” a compilation of recordings from Mr. Lovett that have popped up on various Hollywood soundtracks during the past decade, brought two questions to mind.

First: When is the incomparable singer-songwriter who penned the 1996 Grammy-winning country masterpiece “The Road to Ensenada” going to sit down and write some new songs? It’s been seven years. He’s getting into Lucinda Williams territory here, with the better part of a decade between albums of original material.

Second: How is it that Mr. Lovett’s lovely songs keep turning up on the soundtracks of so many awful movies?

“Dear God” with Greg Kinnear? Kevin Costner’s “For the Love of the Game?”

Oh well, at least the crowd on hand Tuesday night at Wolf Trap didn’t have to sit through those films to hear Mr. Lovett and His Large Band deliver a rollicking, ragtime version of Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right” or “Summer Wind,” Mr. Lovett’s romantic take on classic Frank Sinatra.

Anyone with the chops to cover Mr. Sinatra with as much style as the long tall Texan did Tuesday night probably could spend the rest of his recording career profitably “interpreting” the works of others.

Willie Nelson, another singer-songwriter from Mr. Lovett’s home state, for one, has spent much of the past 20 years doing just that.

That comparison is pretty hard to avoid when Mr. Lovett steps up to the microphone and does a stripped-down, lonely rendition of “Blue Skies,” the Irving Berlin classic that became a Nelson signature after he included it on his own 1978 collection of pop standards, “Stardust.”

Yes, Mr. Lovett’s ferociously loyal fan base would no doubt make sure the singer didn’t go bootless even if he never wrote another wry observation about reading the newspaper over someone’s shoulder.

What a disappointment that would be, a point that was driven home when Mr. Lovett and his by-now-familiar collection of top-flight, Armani-suited sidemen shifted out of the cover material and into Mr. Lovett’s catalog.

There was the irresistibly funny roadhouse number, “That’s Right, You’re Not From Texas,” in which Mr. Lovett memorializes the late Walter Hyatt and Champ Hood, a couple of early musical influences, and takes a few genial digs at the former Mrs. Lyle Lovett, Julia Roberts.

Another gem pulled from “Ensenada” was the salsa-flavored “Her First Mistake.” Sort of a “Girl-From-Ipanema-via-Beaumont-Texas” number, “Mistake” is one of those Lovett songs that fans who “get” him play for those who don’t to show them what they’re missing.

From the droll, Dr. Seuss-like lyrics (“I said why yes dear I know exactly what you mean, because there’s not so much I haven’t done or seen. And may I say your eyes are the loveliest shade of … jade”) to Mr. Lovett’s own impeccable finger-picking on the acoustic guitar to the O. Henry-like surprise ending, it’s a showcase of what makes him special as a singer, a writer and a musician.

His Large Band, led, as always, by longtime Lovett collaborator John Hagen and blueswoman Francine Reed, lent able support throughout the evening, with Miss Reed stepping into the spotlight to belt out “Wild Woman Blues” and Mr. Hagen filling in nicely for Randy Newman’s missing vocals on “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” the memorable duet Mr. Lovett had with Mr. Newman on the soundtrack from “Toy Story.”

It’s something fans have come to expect from this particular assemblage of musicians, but it was astonishing nonetheless to watch the 16-piece band seamlessly shift gears from honky-tonk dance-hall numbers to blues and gospel songs to the delicate chamber-folk arrangements of some of Mr. Lovett’s older material, such as “If I Had a Boat.”

Between songs — and there were more than 30, packed into a marathon show that came in at just about three hours — Mr. Lovett entertained with the deadpan patter and skewed asides that are almost as much a part of his entertaining stage persona as the musicianship itself.

At one point, he thanked the well-coifed crowd at Wolf Trap for welcoming him and the band back so warmly every year, noting: “It’s awkward, sometimes, when you haven’t seen someone you know in a year or more, and you notice, they’ve changed since you saw them last … like, suddenly, their breasts are larger.”

The crowd, unaugmented and augmented alike, roared its approval, bringing a crooked grin to the sly Texan’s face.

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