I think of this as a workshop,” offered Lyle Lovett dryly as he looked along the line of seated performers. John Hiatt reeled back in laughter. Joe Ely smirked and rolled his eyes. The comment even jolted Guy Clarke from the meditative state he adopted for most of the night. Lovett then proceeded to wryly quiz Hiatt on tuning techniques, preferred string gauges, and even his preference of guitars before allowing the Indianan to proceed with his next contribution to the evening. Through his gesturing, Lovett underplayed his own significant contribution to country music, instead emphasizing the musical chops of the artists who surrounded him.
The four giants of country music had once again gathered for what has evolved into a sporadic, yet highly anticipated, live collaboration. As the songs bounced down the line from one performer to the next, the stories they encompassed were as diverse as the pedigrees of the singer/songwriters themselves. We were treated to tales of grapefruit-hating landlords, parking-lot make-out sessions, the trials and tribulations of Texas cotton fields, cowpokes, and even the intricacies of jumping a rail car.
Clarke opened the proceedings with a laconic offering of “L.A. Freeway,” which was enthusiastically followed by up by “Silver City” from Ely. Hiatt raised the tempo a notch further when he threw forth “Tennessee Plates” before Lovett delivered an immaculate rendition of “Which Way Does That Wild Pony Run?” Such was the format for the evening as a whole.
Apart from collective renditions of “Blowin’ Down That Old Dusty Road,” “New Tennessee Waltz,” and an occasional accompaniment, there was little in the way of serious musical collaboration. For most of the evening, the three artists not performing sat attentively (or nonchalantly, in Clarke’s instance), while their colleague commanded the glow of the spotlight.
Seeing musicians of this caliber sitting idly onstage without performing for significant periods of time certainly made for a bizarre situation. But when the wheel turned and their time presented itself, each made the most of it. And perhaps none more so than Hiatt and Lovett. At the end of the evening, Hiatt’s rendition of “Have a Little Faith in Me” was nothing short of sublime, while Lovett turned in a sparkling interpretation of Clarke’s “Step inside This House,” the latter needing no workshopping whatsoever.