By Don Heckman
An extraordinarily well-planned performance at the Hollywood Bowl Friday night opened with a delightful appearance by Lyle Lovett and his Large Band. Lovett’s far-ranging career has reached from acting to music, with a variety of stops in between.
But heard in a wide open, Hollywood Bowl setting, driven by the jazz rhythms and crisp arrangements of his Large Band, the appealing essence of his music was crisp and clear.
Each of Lovett’s numerous musical characteristics — from his stellar songwriting to the settings he’s chosen, to the sardonic, between-songs remarks – were at the heart of his vividly alive performance. Listening to – and immensely enjoying – every moment of Lovett’s set triggered the desire to hear this too rarely heard artist in action again, at every opportunity.
The evening’s headliner, Willie Nelson, brought a similarly appealing program of songs to the Bowl.
Examples of well-established pop and rock artist turning to the pleasures of the Great American Songbook for new material for expression haven’t exactly been uncommon in recent years. (Think Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney and others.)
But they were preceded as long ago as the late-‘70s by Nelson’s Stardust, a platinum album that hit the charts in genres reaching from country music to pop.
At the Bowl on Friday, a highly enthusiastic packed house audience had the singular opportunity to hear Nelson perform a program of songs from the entire album, assisted by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by David Campbell.
It would be hard to ask for a better brief collection of classic songs than Nelson chose for the album – and for this performance. Some had special meaning. “Georgia On My Mind,” for example, is a song already favored by both country and r&b artists. “September Song,” with its poetic references to the time between “May and December” was a perfect vehicle of expression for the 80 year old Nelson.
Other tunes – the poignant “Moonlight in Vermont,” followed by “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” provided lush orchestral settings for Nelson’s sometimes gravelly, always deeply interpretive vocals.
And when he concluded the Stardust part of the program, Nelson added another entertaining group of his own songs, including such familiar items as “Crazy” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” And climaxing with a Nelson tune whimsically – but perhaps pointedly – titled “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
Nelson sang in such a charming manner that the combination of his unique vocal timbres with a collection of such familiar, much-loved songs should have resulted in a memorable evening of music. And to some extent, it did, largely because of the superb orchestral backing, arranged by Campbell.
The only problem in the Nelson set was largely created by his own interpretive ambitions. Presumably eager to approach the lyrics in a poetically expressive manner, he often jumped quickly to the end of a phrase. Occasionally the technique produced the pointed lyric results he was seeking. More often, however, it positioned a song’s melody in an inaccurate relationship to its harmonic progression.
That said, there’s no argument with Nelson’s overall performance, nor with the charismatic qualities he brought to his unique view of the Great American Songbook.