By Devon Wendell
It was a soulfully fun evening at The Greek Theater Friday night with two diverse acts whose sets were celebrations of true roots music, ranging from blues and bluegrass to country, jazz, and gospel. Kicking off the show, Madeleine Peyroux took the Greek stage with a sense of tradition framing themes of isolation, alcoholism, loss, and redemption. Her opening number, “Don’t Wait Too Long” (from the album Careless Love) was a bleak ultimatum of pain: “You can cry a million tears, you can wait a million years, if you think time will change your ways, don’t wait too long.”
Peyroux’s music is heavily steeped in modern folk blues, with arrangements reminiscent of post 70’s Eric Clapton and the darker side of James Taylor with the sleek jazzier sensibilities of Steely Dan. This was clearly evident on “River Of Tears” from her latest album Bare Bones. Not surprisingly, it was co-produced by Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, and a tasty guitar solo from Pat Bergeson echoed Becker’s jazz stylings. Bersegon and the other members of her quartat — keyboardist Gary Versace, bassist Barak Mori and drummer Darren Beckett — were extremely tasteful, not getting in the way of Peyroux’s unique, imagistic lyrics.
Peyroux’s vocals clearly owed a nod to Billie Holiday, though not in a manner that felt forced, or with any feeling of blatant imitation. Her own staccato acoustic guitar playing brought to mind Willie Nelson at his finest — especially on “I’m All Right,” which Peyroux explained was inspired by WC. Field’s quote; “Drown in a cold vat of whiskey? Death where is thy sting,” which perfectly summed up this dark saloon serenade to love gone astray. And her lyrics often recall the hopelessness and despair of Dylan’s more recent recordings, exemplified on “I Must Be Saved,” which Peyroux explained has to do with “loss and questions of salvation.”
The Highlights of Peyroux’s set were ragtimey covers of Serge Gainsbourg’s “La Javanaise,” which featured Versace’s haunting melodica with and Beckett playing brushes on a cardboard box, and Leonard Cohen’s classic “Dance Me To The End Of Love.” A dash of optimism on the horizon was thrown in for good measure to end the program with “Instead” — “Instead of feeling bad, feel glad” — featuring Bergeson’s clean, slide guitar playing in a tune that brought to mind one of Billie Holiday’s rollicking blues with Teddy Wilson’s band. The final number, Something Grand promised a better life down the road and was further proof that Madeleine Peyroux, with her refreshingly pure sound, has matured into one of today’s finest singer/songwriters.
The central elements to Lyle Lovett and his Large Band are humor and soul, both of which were definitely present as he opened the program’s second half with his anthem of self gratification, “Choke My Chicken,” a southern fried country romp. Their take on the Tammy Wynette classic, “Stand By Your Man,” delivered with the right sense of irony and wit, was good for a laugh. And they also embraced gospel traditions — as in “I Will Rise Up,” which took Lovett’s devout fans straight to the cotton fields of the deep South and right into church.
“Bluegrass is the dark side of country music”, Lovett informed the crowd as he was joined by Keith Sewell on mandolin, Luke Bulla playing fine fiddle, Buck Reid on steel guitar, colorful cello work by John Hagen, and solid bassist Peter Krausse for a few bluegrass numbers, including the hilarious and risqué “Keep It In Your Pantry,” about bad relationships and food. Another number, the boot stomping “Down In Indiana,” showcased Sewell’s frenetic mandolin playing along with Bulla’s exemplary fiddle work.
Shifting gears, the gut-wrenching minor key blues, “You Were Always There,” opened up room for screaming — but not completely over the top — electric guitar solos by both Ray Herndon and Mitch Watkins with solid drumming support from veteran Russ Kunkel.
Lovett’s own spotlight qualities included playful and imaginative lyrics as well as his witty banter on tunes — “Penguins” and “Home Is Where my Horse Is” among them — which covered everything from road life and beer to football. He also displayed his Johnny Cash-esque finger picking style on the ballads, “Walk Through The Bottomland,” “If I Had A Boat” (a romantic fantasy), “Upon A Pony” and a dark tribute to a traveling lost soul in “L.A. County.” On a pair of numbers he duetted with Chicago native Francine Reed on some gospel and pure Texas swing blues on “What Do You Do”/”The Glory Of Love,” and Ida Cox’s “Women Don’t Get The Blues.”
Lovett and his Large Band closed the set with his gospel hit “Church,” which had the audience on their feet, clapping and singing along, investing the venue with a true Church vibe. Here, as elsewhere throughout the program, the backup singers were outstanding: Sweet Pea Atkinson, Harry Bowens, Francine Reed, and Willie Greene, whose exceptional baritone vocals complimented Lovett’s laid back, droll country tone.
The evening ended with two encores; the whimsical Chicago blues shuffle “My Baby Don’t Tolerate,” and a medley of Leadbelly’s classic “Ain’t No More Cane” and a return to “I Will Rise Up.” Capped by Jim Cox’s percussive piano playing over the soulful moans of the vocalists, it was the perfect ending to a down home, cool summer’s evening at The Greek Theater.
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