Most significantly, he has created a wholly new band from which he can graft bluegrass and Western swing elements into the mix and weed out material that doesn’t quite fit. Last year at the Greek he performed with a hybrid unit that leaned toward the big band, blues and gospel he had favored for nearly half a decade; now he’s in personal roots territory with ace bluegrass mandolinist Sam Bush, country dobro legend Jerry Douglas and the commanding bassist Viktor Krauss, the buttress of the whole affair. The vocals too, are of the high and lonesome variety of Appalachia rather than the loft-rattling baritones of the Baptist church.
Lovett started the two-hour show low-key before showcasing the instrumental prowess of the passionate fiddler Andrea Zonn and Douglas on “I’ve Been to Memphis.” The emphasis here was squarely on the “Road to Ensenada” disc with a sprinkling of tunes from “Joshua Judges Ruth” and “And His Large Band,” along with older faves such as “If I Had Boat,” “She’s No Lady” and “L.A. County” from his breakthrough ’87 album “Pontiac.” His version of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” as always, was a welcome delight.
While the show was clearly at least a thousand seats shy of a sell-out, Lovett is drawing an audience familiar with his work and no longer attracted by the “Eraserhead” hairdo or possible celeb sightings. His pacing is impeccable, the musicianship crisp and the stories humorous and touching. When he brought out opening act Bill & Bonnie Hearne to assist him — Alison Krauss guested on a number, too — Lovett beamed with respect for his fellow musicians, particularly those who chronicle the rural beauty of the Southwest. The Hearnes opened the evening with music that, at its core, finds a source point common to a good portion of Lovett’s work. The manner in which Lovett distills his varied influences with a unique vision of America, love and humanity continues to be executed with the utmost care and at peak levels.