Reflections on Lyle Lovett

This past Sunday October 26, Lyle Lovett performed at the Peoria Civic Center Theater under the auspices of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. It was an immensely satisfying evening of great American music drawn from the varied cultures and history of the United States and performed exquisitely by Mr. Lovett and his exceptionally talented acoustic group. The audience came not only from the Peoria area but also as far away as Chicago, Springfield, and Indiana. The Mayor of Champaign, Illinois was even in attendance. All were treated to some incredible music making and humor, and Mr. Lovett was gracious in mentioning that the PSO was his host for the evening.

The music was fun and entertaining, but it was also sophisticated and artful. Some audience members were unfamiliar with Lyle Lovett’s music and were pleasantly surprised by both the breadth and depth of his art. Those that were familiar with him may, however, be unaware of the amazing spectrum of American musical history and culture they experienced that evening. Mr. Lovett’s styles range from Texas Swing to Blues to Rock-a-Billy to RockR&B, and Jazz. Plus, he showed his rich knowledge of American folk music – as we discussed afterwards the likes of Ramblin’ Jack ElliotGuy Clark, and Bill and Bonnie Hearn. You may never have heard of these folk singers, but Ramblin’ Jack had a big influence on Bob Dylan. It was some time after my own Texas years that I realized how fortunate I was to have booked all three of these legends on one weekend for a folk music festival I was running (with the great help of my friend – folk singer/poet Andy Wilkinson). It was great to hear Lyle Lovett mention them on stage, and afterward, that evening.

His band members were no less sophisticated. The violinist Luke Bulla displayed virtuosity and sensitivity in styles ranging from Stéphane Grappelli to Texas Long Bow fiddling with its ties back to European colonial migrations to the Adirondacks, Appalachians, and Ozarks. Bassist Viktor Krauss’s sophisticated solos and original songs sparkled with influences from bluegrass to Ron Carter. Guitarist Keith Sewell’s original number performed that evening was reminiscent of early country music’s harmonizing style with roots back in the Appalachians, and even further back to Irish and Scottish folk styles. His impeccable guitar virtuosity was stunning and afterward someone mentioned hearing a dash of BB King in one solo. And then there was cellist John Hagen who showed us that the cello, of all things, is a jazz, bluegrass, and classical instrument. I enjoyed hearing how his father had been an orchestral conductor. Drummer Russ Kunkel provided the perfect touch of percussion, possessing those all-too-rare drummer’s instincts of when to support and when to solo. Lyle Lovett generously shared the excellently coordinated spotlight with his colleagues. It reminded me of when I heard Ron CarterBilly Higgins, and Cedar Walton at Sweet Basil in New York City years ago – truly a deep collaboration.

But why was the PSO hosting and producing this event? Isn’t this commercial music, pop music? The answer is – this was great music. Part of the PSO’s mission is to build another bridge in our city of bridges – one between cultures that shows the sophistication, value, and encompassing nature of all great music. From Beethoven to Lovett, from Classical to Jazz, from European tradition to American innovation – all great music comes from the synthesis of the myriad influences absorbed by artists – from their early training to their latest discoveries. Even a short exposure to Lyle Lovett’s creativity will explain why the PSO presented him. He is an artist – one that did not succumb to outside forces trying to make him “easy to market”. Rather, he is a unique talent who chose to stay true to his inner voice as the source for his innovative and eclectic style. There are many classical and Jazz musicians for whom we could say the same. Yes?

The PSO is dedicated to the presentation of the past, the present and the future of music. As you have witnessed, our programs feature top quality classical artists and repertoire, innovative classical musicians venturing into the popular – violinist Charles Yang, hornist Jeff Nelsen, pianist Jade Simmons, and the innovative Quartetto Gelato coming to Peoria in February 2015 – and artists coming from more popular styles and venturing into the classical – like Bela Fleck.

Jerry Slavit, CEO of the syndicated radio show “From the Top” (which has featured several PSO soloists), said at our Pre-Concert Lecture last season – “Great Music is Great Music!”

I concur, for what we experienced with Lyle Lovett and his Acoustic Group this past Sunday in Peoria had all the qualities of a fantastic orchestral, chamber music, or jazz combo performance – virtuoso and energetic performers, sophisticated style and expression, audience connection, and music rooted in tradition but presented fresh and innovatively.

Truly “Classic”!

Many thanks to Flo and Sid Banwart for their exceptional vision in making this concert possible.