Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris’ show on July 8 at the Santa Barbara Bowl was a night of musical camaraderie; a feat of showmanship that combined multiple genres and featured songs written and performed by members of their backing bands. The stage was jam-packed with talent, all under the direction of two artists who had long before carved their mark into country music history.
Emmylou Harris made for a colossal first act, carrying with her the context of an illustrious 47-year career that has earned her 13 Grammys, and influencing a whole generation of country and folk artists in the process. She walked onstage as her backing musicians finished warming up their instruments as casually as if she were a stagehand, but her lack of gravitas only invigorated her effortless, down-to-earth mystique.
She launched into her set with “Here I Am,” a fitting introduction off her 2003 album Stumble Into Grace, with shimmering guitars that lent her sound a restrained fierceness. She then played “Orphan Girl,” with bassist Chris Donohue, who switched from an electric bass to an interesting looking, skinny stand-up bass, and lead guitarist Pam Rose, who put down her acoustic-electric for a string instrument that resembled a double-necked lute. Percussionist Mary Ann Kennedy helped hold down the rhythm with a large bongo and maracas, though she played many other percussive instruments during the set. All of them contributed backing vocals. The instrumentation was more in line with Harris’s focus on folk music during the past two decades, but her voice still retained its slight country twang.
Donohue started touring with Harris in 2008, as a member of her then-backing ensemble The Red Dirt Boys, touring behind her album All I Intended To Be. Mary Ann Kennedy and Pam Rose are singer-songwriters in their own right, and are the founding members of country duo Kennedy Rose. At one point, Harris left the stage so that Kennedy and Rose could perform their cover of Peter, Paul, & Mary’s “Some Walls,” with Rose stepping out from behind the drum to sing lead vocals and play the mandolin.
Another highlight of Harris’ set was her 2000 song “Michelangelo,” in which she weaves heroic mythologies about the legendary Renaissance artist through a series of dreams, ranging from biblical apocalypse (“And the angels turned to ashes/You came tumbling with them to earth”) to a soldier’s death “in a field of thorn and roses” (“For the warrior slain in battle/From an arrow driven deep inside you”). The band seemed particularly in sync during the song, with each musician sporadically accenting notes to coincide with determined bongo hits from Kennedy, releasing intermittent pockets of energy with each strike.
Next onstage was Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, an ensemble whose name I didn’t fully appreciate until I saw the sheer scale of their operation. With two sax players, an organ player, a trumpeter, trombonist, pianist, cellist, guitarist, pedal steel guitarist, bassist, drummer, fiddle player, and backup singer Francine Reed, His Large Band had a fantastically oversized presence and carried momentous energy into every song.
The set began with His Large Band playing a spirited big band swing-style introduction jam. As they finished, Lovett walked onstage with the choir from the St. Paul Baptist Church in Oxnard following close behind him. The expanded expansive ensemble then launched into a rousing rendition of the gospel staple “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord,” which incited joy from the crowd even in the venue’s decidedly unholy rock concert atmosphere.
The merry atmosphere fit, since Lovett had an impressive milestone to celebrate. This summer — and by extension this tour — marks the 30th anniversary of the release of his self-titled debut album. He spoke humorously about the long trajectory of his career, saying that he and his band “have to be careful, otherwise this might turn into a real job.” Lovett traced this sentiment to his childhood, reminiscing that “my parents had real jobs. It seemed hard,” before reasoning that since his parents “did what they had to do,” to make a living, they provided him with the foundation to “do what I wanted to do.” He then picked up an acoustic guitar and led the band into “I Will Rise Up/Ain’t No More Cane,” with the choir adding harmonious weight to his vocals, especially during his chant of “I will rise up” during the chorus.
The next song, “Penguins,” was a lot funkier than the other tunes, and featured a delightful upbeat bass line alongside a musical dual between the piano and the organ, where their playing was so intertwined that there was hardly a distinguishable difference between the two instruments. “Penguins” was followed by the hilarious, innuendo-filled “Choke My Chicken,” which was the closest thing to a country song on his set list at that point thanks to the prominent fiddle part, including an energetic soli at the end.
A major highlight came toward the end, when Lovett surrendered the stage to backup singer Francine Reed, who performed an exciting cover of Ida Cox’s 1924 classic “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” shouting into the crowd, “Any wild women in Santa Barbara tonight?!” before claiming the title for herself. She sang and growled soulfully, bringing to life a piece of music whose spirit is sometimes lost in the quiet graininess of old records. Her cover of “Wild Women” has become a longstanding feature in Lyle Lovett’s shows, and was immortalized in the 1999 album Live in Texas.
Together, Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett and His Large Band were an overwhelming and delightful combination. The energy and raw talent of both acts were infectious enough to entrance non-musicians and musicians alike, and definitively transcended the narrow constraint of country music that many try to box them into. Let’s hope they never find real jobs.