Traversing half a dozen genres and blending witty, understated between-song patter with flawless arrangements for his Large Band, Lyle Lovett gave one of the summer’s most memorable performances on Sunday night. His two-hour set began at the stroke of 8, when the singer joined 13 other musicians onstage for a novelty opener about chickens. Lovett’s four-member chorus included gospel great Francine Reed and Was (Not Was) recording star Sweet Pea Atkinson. The singers did a stellar job throughout the night, easily keeping pace with Lovett’s talented instrumentalists-even while executing the occasional penguin dance. Lovett achieved an immediate rapport with the crowd by indulging his droll sense of humor in a series of hesitant but charming remarks, including an early-evening joke about the Bowl being a venue fit for the Flintstones’ fictional hometown of Bedrock.
Opener Madeleine Peyroux has a fascinating, sensuous voice that at moments recalled the great Billie Holiday, and her set gave the audience a taste of what her three eclectic, jazzy albums have to offer. Peyroux would later return to the stage to teach Lovett a Hank Williams song, adding another beautiful touch to the evening’s elaborate, yet never strained mix of styles and textures.
Lovett always has been an unusually intellectual songwriter. In the context of his band, Lovett’s learned and witty lyrics conjure an unlikely liaison between the writer David Foster Wallace and the swing musician Louis Jordan. Throughout Sunday’s performance, the constellation of musicians onstage shifted, from 14 down to nine for some bluesier numbers, and then down to just four men around a single microphone for the bluegrass segment.
Lovett has a lot of fans in the area, and he acknowledged them by dedicating one number, “Home Is Where My Horse Is,” to his buds from Santa Ynez, and another to the engineers who master his recordings in Ojai. The good feelings of the night peaked with the sincerity with which Lovett knocked out Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” and the rousing gospel of the medley “I Will Rise Up/Ain’t No More Cane.” As Lovett said at one point in reference to his classic “The Truck Song,” “songs are therapy.”