Sweet Pea and Jack
A couple of months ago, we did something we don't usually do -- pulled the car over and made a cell phone call trying to win concert tickets in a radio station contest. Mirabile dictu, we won! Caller no. 5, baby. It was the Lyle Lovett show at Edgefield last night, sponsored by KINK. Our luck continued to run strong as we landed our highest-end babysitter at the last possible moment, and so on out to Troutdale we drove.
Lovett played for 2½ hours with his large band -- not a big band, mind you, as there are no horns in it, but definitely large. At various times there seemed to be a dozen or so instrumentalists at work, and not one but two gospel choruses joined in at the beginning and end of the set. Lovett recruits local groups to play this role, and on this evening, the choir from the Mount Olivet Baptist Church here in town was joined by a group called the Hurd Ensemble that came down from Seattle after three Lovett shows up there and in B.C.
Along with a handful of seasoned string players from his beloved Austin and many others, Lovett brought Russ Kunkel from L.A. on drums, which in and of itself put enough Grammy power on the stage to light a small city. But all of the side men were upstaged by the background singers who stood to the star's immediate right. What to my wondering eyes did appear -- two of them were from the earth-shaking front line of Was (Not Was), who knocked our socks off (as we knew they would) at the Wonder a while back. Sure enough, it was Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens! Next to them was bass singer Willie Greene Jr., whose voice knows no bottom and whose bottom, along with the rest of him, moved smooth as silk in synchronicity with Sweet Pea and Sir Harry.
We hadn't been to Edgefield in years, and hadn't attended a show there since shortly after the place first started holding them many years ago. It was pretty much the same layout we remembered from ye olde days of Nanci Griffith, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Los Lobos, but like everything else in Portland, the venue has gotten bigger, taller, and not necessarily better. Instead of free-for-all seating on the lawn for everyone, now there is a reserved seat section with folding chairs right in the sweet spot in front of the stage. The plebeians in general admission class are shunted off to the rear and to the sides. I remember being sorely put off by this two-tiered system in my one and only visit to the Mount Hood Jazz Festival in the early '90s, and it was only slightly less annoying at Edgefield last night, where at least the chair section was kept to a reasonable size. At the Jazz Festival, the poor saps who waited all day with their lawn chairs and blankets were banished 50 yards or more from the stage -- here it wasn't quite so bad, but the whole caste thing still marred the proceeding.
One marvel of the event was the efficiency with which the McMenamin machine pumps food and especially alcohol into a large-ish crowd. At premium prices, of course, but there isn't much waiting around for your drink or meal. Surprisingly, Jack Daniel's whisky had a sponsorship presence on the scene, and we succumbed to the suggestion to kick the proceedings off with a Jack on the rocks. We also entered into a raffle for Jack swag in which they swiped the barcode on your driver's license as your entry. There's no shortage of ways in which we'll probably regret letting them do that, but it was nice to know that Dick Cheney would be able to trace our movements if somehow our cell phone pings went down.
Oh yeah, the music. Lyle Lovett is a nice man with a droll sense of humor who writes and performs understated songs that draw on many rich streams of American music. There's some Texas two-step, there's some Nashville, some sensitive 70's singer-songwriter stuff, some bluegrass, and that oh-so-glorious gospel. It is performed as tightly and cleanly as one could imagine. Lovett honors and appreciates the many traditions from which he borrows, and he is also quite attentive to the large entourage of musicians with whom he travels around. His on-stage monologues and "interviews" with the players are highly entertaining. In our mind and heart, though, his work never seems to total more than the sum of all the parts he puts together. A lot of the time, not having much familiarity with his songs, we don't quite "get" what the big deal is. Obviously, his throngs of fans see it differently.
Anyway, it was a show worth seeing and hearing, and hey, the price was right. Thanks to KINK, to the babysitter, to Mr. Daniel, to Sweet Pea and Sir Harry, and especially to the wonderful Mrs., for a fun night.