Like fellow one-time country maverick k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett has all but abandoned the fiddles and pedal steel. Big-band blues, gospel and reflective folk are his stock-in-trade these days, and at the Roxy on Wednesday the Texan and his restless, multifaceted band flew well beyond those barriers.
The show--the first of four at the Roxy--offered much of the familiar Lovett sound and image, but the eight songs from his new album, "Joshua Judges Ruth," that opened the evening expand his artistic turf significantly, and by constructing the set as a show within a show, Lovett set up a great adventure.
Bookended by lively segments featuring his full complement of horn section and vocal quartet was a broad valley of personal introspection and musical impressionism. Taking Lovett's folk ballads into uncharted territory, the musicians stopped jumpin' and jivin' and bore down with the concentration of a chamber group essaying a tough new-music program.
Cello and bass formed thick curtains behind Lovett's thorny meditations. Rickie Lee Jones came out and piped her harmony on the chorus of the plaintive "North Dakota." Cello and conga drums engaged in a free-form duet.
In these settings, Lovett's voice moved beyond its usual offhand plainness to shape and texture the lyrics like a sawdust Sinatra--the ache he conveyed on the torchy ballad "All My Love Is Gone" was especially absorbing.
While the show's rhythmic material was irresistible--the two gospel set pieces "Church" and "Since the Last Time" proved especially fine live pieces, with their rich philosophizing and propulsive narratives--the artistic risks and emotional reach of this central portion gave it its real substance.
It also assured that Lovett would not succumb to the trap of shtick that's always a danger for an eccentric cult personality. Lovett, wearing a sharp suit and tie and displaying a profile like a crescent moon, projected a comically tight manner.
When he dug into a song he led the band with a cool authority, but in between he offered deadpan, Smothers Brothers-like monologues, and occasionally flashed a clenched smile--sometimes as an accent to his wry persona, sometimes in deferential acknowledgment of a nice piece of work by the musicians.
His humor turned on his lack of success with women and his refusal to stop trying, and on his general off-centeredness. When he mused about how "weird" it would be to get up and go to a job every day, he combined aimlessness and arrogance with the wicked flair of a Randy Newman--an artist whose league Lovett is close to entering.
Lovett plays the Roxy through Saturday, then moves on to the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert on Wednesday, the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim on Thursday and the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara next Friday.