Singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett is odd-looking enough that his cylindrical coif initially gathered as much publicity as his equally distinctive music. Lovett’s current live performances, flogging his third MCA/Curb album, “Joshua Judges Ruth,” are strong enough that we can forget the hair altogether.
Sufficiently mainstream to have appeared several times on “The Tonight Show,” the quirky, Houston-based performer is expanding his exposure somewhat by portraying a mysterious character in feature film “The Player.”
Launched by MCA as a country act out of Nashville, he’s been moved to the L.A. headquarters, which is just as well–other than the fact that he plays a guitar, Lovett is no more “country” than Randy Newman.
Not that he’s incapable of writing a country song: Tuesday’s Roxy show (the first of a four-night stand) and the new album include a dandy, “She’s Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To,” that’s as knowing a parody as David Allan Coe’s “You Didn’t Even Call Me By My Name.”
But Lovett’s moving more and more into a jazz direction, with his versatile and well-rehearsed Large Band bebopping at the slightest provocation. Pianist Tim Ray was especially impressive in those forays.
Second dominant strain at Tuesday night’s show was black gospel, exemplified by musical direction of several of Lovett’s numbers as well as his choice of an opening act, Nashville’s venerable Fairfield Four a cappella quintet. Nowhere were Lovett’s gospel inclinations better realized than in the set-opening “Church” and “Since the Last Time,” an account of a funeral from the point of view of the deceased.
Featured instrumentalists also included tenor saxophonist Harvey Thompson (of the Muscle Shoals Horns) and John Hagen, who played cello and violin on several numbers.
Of the four fine backup singers, most strongly featured was Francine Reed, who’s been with Lovett since the first album. In addition to her work on his songs (including a sassy duet on “What Do You Do”), gutsy Reed soloed on Ida Cox’s old “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues.”
Rickie Lee Jones showed up to recreate her duet of the Lovett-Willis Alan Ramsey song “North Dakota,”from “Joshua Judges Ruth.”
Fairfield Four, whose lineage dates back to the ’20s, currently contains two members who have been with the group since the ’40s; lead singer E.I. Richardson is 79. A debut Warner Bros. album is due imminently; perhaps the label has in mind the recent success of the more contemporary Take 6 or the brief flurry of attention given the veteran Dixie Hummingbirds following their 1972 recording of “Love Me Like a Rock” with Paul Simon.
Dressed in tuxedoes, the politely received group was more notable for their strong harmony singing of material including the relatively well-known “I, John” and “Dig a Little Deeper” than for any dazzling showmanship.