At the climax of Shakespeare’s gut-busting Much Ado About Nothing, things get dark. Claudio and Hero are about to get married, but Claudio gets tricked into thinking that last night, Hero squeezed in a (first and) last fling before getting hitched. Claudio understandably gets upset right at the altar, and Hero’s dad takes Claudio’s side, telling the little harlot that if she doesn’t die from shame, he’ll kill her himself. Boy suspects girl of cheating, boy rejects girl, girl’s dad gets out a shotgun.
What could be more country than that?
At least that’s what Ben Donenberg, founding artistic director of the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, thought. So amid an all-star cast last month that included Helen Hunt and Tom Irwin, he cast country legend Lyle Lovett as Balthasar—really just an excuse to get Lovett onstage to sing a few of his songs, which were weaved seamlessly into the plot. Nickel Creek’s Sean and Sara Watkins played in the pit as well.
“When you walk out onstage, you get a sense of the audience immediately,” Lovett says on the phone from Austin, Texas. “If you’re just playing songs, you can adjust what you do to the audience. But if you’re doing a play, you’ve gotta do the play exactly. You can’t leave stuff out.”
In a wide-ranging 45-minute conversation that covers everything from Shakespeare to satellite radio (where he now listens to a lot of music), Lovett talks mostly of his co-performers, whether musicians or actors. “It was amazing to watch how these really good actors could read the audience really astutely,” he says. “Every night they could be the same but different. Because the same action is performed every night, you’d walk on- and offstage and see the same things. There was one point in every show where, when I walked into the dressing room—there were three of us in the dressing room: Sean Watkins, Brian Joseph and I—I would walk in and Brian would have just taken off his pants.”
In all likelihood, both Lovett and his co-troubadour John Hiatt will keep their pants on Thursday night at the Merriam Theater, if only because the Merriam is a classy joint. The two just embarked on a month-long acoustic tour that will bring the old friends to shared stages throughout the Northeast and Midwest, where they’ll trade songs and stories. “It’s like getting to sit in each other’s house and play,” Lovett says. “We may have never played a song before, but I’ll nod to him and he’ll jump off the cliff with me.”
Both Lovett and Hiatt have toured this way for years—particularly with Lovett’s co-Texans Joe Ely and Guy Clark. The four of them, who shared the Tower Theater stage in 2004, form a fab four of alt-country great-uncles who will make you cry if they have to—either by crafting a ballad so beautifully heartbreaking that you just can’t hold it together anymore, or by kicking your ass with 40 pounds of Texas.
When PW catches Lovett on the phone, he’s leaving an all-day recording session for a forthcoming Guy Clark tribute album featuring John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Robert Earl Keen and others. He’s recording Clark’s 1976 tune “Anyhow, I Love You,” a song that pushes and pulls a simple melody through tough, emotional phrasing: trying to get the words out fast enough to keep her from walking out the door, but slow enough to say it right.
“Studying a song to see how someone did it is a fascinating process—it’s really different from if you’re just playing it at home,” Lovett says. “It’s quite possible to sort of play a song. You can sort of know a song. But when you really study a piece of music, it gives you a chance to appreciate everything that’s gone into it. With Guy Clark, every part of his performance communicates.”
He sounds like he could be talking about his own music. In the 25 years since his first self-titled release, Lovett has solidified a reputation for blending country, rock, soul, gospel and jazz with a contagious affinity for serious hats, beautiful women and glistening Texas charm. Mix that with an impressive acting resume that includes indie classics Short Cuts and The Opposite of Sex, and the one fact everyone knows about Lyle Lovett—that he was once married to Julia Roberts—seems to be the least interesting thing about the man.
When he’s not touring these more intimate acoustic shows, he’s carting His Large Band (yes, that’s their name) across the states, stopping frequently in Philly. “People sometimes think you don’t know what city you’re in, but shows are pretty easy to remember,” he says, and easily recalls sauna summer nights at the Mann, the “funky backstage” of the Tower, a drenching 2003 evening at Penn’s Landing when, after hours of rain, he slowly brought out his band one by one—acoustic instruments first—while they collectively figured out what songs they could play with four people, five, six and so on. “Experiences like that, when you look back on them, they’re not as wet,” he says. “Those are shows that you remember and still talk about on the bus.”
While the Merriam is shielded from the weather, these small acoustic shows afford the same kind of unpredictability. “We don’t have any preconceptions of what we’re going to do. If people call out a song to play, I love tht,” he says, perhaps unaware of the world of hurt he’s asking for. “We’re guided by the audience. At the very least, I know half the time I get to see a great John Hiatt show.”
Thurs., Jan. 20, 8pm. $45-$75. Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. 215.893.1999. kimmelcenter.org
PW's Music Issue 2014