Lovett thinks getting to play live is its own reward

| Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 8:16 p.m.

Lyle Lovett doesn't let himself get tied down to a set list with his concerts. Yes, he has one, but it's hardly set in stone.

To script a show so tightly would rob Lovett of one of his main joys of performing, the flexibility to respond to the audience and play requests or to alter the selection of songs to fit the mood of the evening.

“No two shows are the same in that way,” Lovett says. “I mean, if you're open to the possibility of interacting with the audience, and that really is the fun part for me, that's what makes the shows different from one another, even if you played a similar set. But I always like to allow for requests. The set list really isn't a set deal. It's really just sort of a guide for us, from which we can sort of jump off.”

That Lovett, who performs May 3 at the Carnegie Library Music Hall in Munhall, would take that approach to his concerts makes sense for a guy who certainly hasn't built a career that follows the standard script for success as a music artist.

Lovett was originally promoted to the mainstream country market alongside artists like Steve Earle, k.d. lang and Nanci Griffith — as something of a maverick artist who was still rooted in traditional country music.

That was accurate to a point, and certainly his first two CDs, a 1986 self-titled release and 1988's “Pontiac,” were strongly influenced by traditional country.

But Lovett showed early on he wasn't going to be fenced in, stylistically. And with his third CD, 1989's “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band,” he broke any mold that might have been solidifying around his music. Featuring a backing group that included fiddle, cello, a full horn section and backup singers, Lovett added big-band-styled jazz, soul, blues and rock and roll to his arsenal, without losing country as a foundation of his music.

His albums since then have cut a similarly wide swath stylistically, establishing Lovett as one of the most versatile artists in contemporary music.

“If I had a strategy, my career might have been different,” Lovett says. “To be able to go out and play live with people you enjoy playing with, that really is the joy of being in this sort of business and doing it. It's not what comes of it. It's the getting to do it. That really is its own reward.”

Lovett's latest CD, “Release Me,” continues a thread he started with his 1998 two-CD set, “Step Inside This House,” which featured his versions of songs by writers who have most influenced his music and his songwriting, including Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Walter Hyatt and Steven Fromholz.

He returned to that concept on the 2009 CD, “Natural Forces,” which included covers of songs by many of the same writers featured on “Step Inside This House.”

Now with “Release Me,” Lovett continues the concept , but with a bit different slant. The album documents songs (mainly, covers mixed in with a few originals) that Lovett and the various configurations of his bands have performed live over the years, but never recorded.

“That's what drove this record,” he says. “It was songs that I had been playing live that I wanted to record for the people that have heard them (live).”

But where “Step Inside This House” and “Natural Forces” were focused mainly on country, “Release Me” falls more in the eclectic tradition of an album like “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.”

It has jazzy Western swing (“Garfield's Blackberry Blossom”), punchy blues (“White Boy Lost in the Blues”), horn-fueled R&B (“Isn't That So”), pure country (the title song), spare acoustic balladry (“Understand You”) and even a Martin Luther hymn (“Keep Us Steadfast”).

Lovett is on tour behind “Release Me,” this time bringing along an acoustic ensemble.

The songs from “Release Me,” Lovett says, all translate well to the acoustic format, and he's enjoying performing new and back catalog songs in this setting.

“It's a different experience, really, standing on stage with fewer people,” Lovett says. “It allows each of the players to expand a little bit and there's just a little more space to move within.

“But in whatever configuration we perform in, my main objective is to feature guys in the band,” he says. “My thought is, at the end of the show, I want the audience to feel as though they've gotten to know everybody on stage. So the songs that we choose are really geared toward that.”

Alan Sculley is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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