True Lyle-philes know a disappointment when they hear one
By Rhonda Reeves

A "perfect" Lyle Lovett show is just not good enough.

I have the distinct feeling that [Lyle Lovett] is is one of those genuinely nice people who is not genuinely nice naturally. I suspect that nature and intellect conspired to create in Lovett a real biting, lacerating cynic, but by sheer strength of character, he has willed himself to be a gracious and generous gentleman. ANYONE can be nice if they feel like being nice. I suspect that Lyle Lovett is nice in spite of himself. -Bill Flanagan

There's a big difference between perfection and magic - a fact that was (sigh) sadly evident at Tuesday night's performance by Lyle Lovett and his large band.

Naturally, it's an embarrassment of riches when the worst thing a critic can say about a show is that it was merely perfect but an embarrassment nonetheless.

As one music lover pointed out, "the worst Lyle Lovett concert is better than any Whitesnake show," which is of course, true - but little consolation for those Lyle-philes who've come to expect nothing short of earth-shattering/angels weeping/life-altering moments from the long, tall Texan.

Maybe that's not fair (so few things are), but his live shows began setting this bar to impossible heights back in the 80s.

Lovett is, for some reason, simply not at his best in Lexington. Maybe we haven't yet found the right venue for him; maybe we don't have the right crowd; maybe we can't muster the right ambience.

(The low turnout was nothing short of humiliating, in and of itself. There were grumblings about ticket prices, but they were well within reason for an act of this caliber in a venue of this size, which was Rupp Arena cordoned off to a capacity of less than 4000.)

One of the worst shows of his entire career had to be his 1992 performance at Memorial Coliseum. The acoustics were inexorably wretched. The crowd was rude and disrespectful. And he barely uttered a word in between songs. It was impossible to come away feeling anything but sympathy - knowing (given his penchant for perfection) that he was suffering a hell far worse than his fans.

His gig at the Horse Park a few years later wasn't much better.

While his show this week - kicking off the new schedule for the "Heart of Rupp Arena" series - was a vast improvement over those, it was still clearly not his night.

Missing was any sense of spontaneity or joy - along with a host of tunes that were unforgivably left off the set list.

Again, maybe an unfair charge - given how vast his canon is now, and allowing that a nearly three-hour set was more than generous - but come on, "Penguins??" (a nothing ditty about an ex-girlfriend's roommate who decorated with penguins. Even HE's described the song as silly).

Most noticeably absent was the storytelling that accompanies his shows in more intimate venues. It's a stage style honed to perfection by singer/songwriter idols of his like Willis Alan Ramsey (who opened for Lovett at the Macauley Theatre in 1993), Townes Van Zandt, and former Texas A&M roommate, Robert Earl Keen (with whom he penned "This Ole Porch," - a hit for both men - and a showstopper on Tuesday).

"North Dakota" (co-written by Ramsey) also offered a moment of genius in an otherwise mostly rote evening. (He and Lovett were on the phone during the 92 Grammy Awards when Michael Bolton came on, leading Ramsey to observe, "You know, it's singers like Michael Bolton who give Daryl Hall a bad name.")

Lovett's stories have always had a range from wry to hilarious to poignant. It would be impossible to forget, for example, the night he told the Macauley crowd about the roots for the song "Pontiac." He was inspired by an old man who used to park near an art gallery, until the day the guy demolished a Jaguar, belonging to the gallery owner. She sued him, and "nobody ever heard from him again." When the drunken crowd laughed uproariously, Lovett's quiet response was the softly spoken rebuke, "it's not funny."

There were no moments like this on Tuesday. That said, every note was perfect. The guys from the Muscle Shoals horns acquitted themselves admirably. The steel guitar. Well, in summary, again, it was ALL perfect.

Wyoming native John Hagen's cello solo during the (sorta) grammy-nominated "You Can't Resist It," was exquisite (that nomination was purportedly declined by Lovett).

Technically dazzling. Filled with what he's described as "harmonic glissandos interspersed with Doppler-like minor third trills." Of course it was. He's a classically-trained virtuoso. His influences range from Shostakovitch and Prokofiev to Coltrane. And his solo, while suitably aggressive (and a painfully obvious crowd-pleaser), was probably nothing he couldn't do in his sleep by now.

This restraint seemed a far cry from the Colorado gig where Hagen told gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson that the band planned to "give 'em hell" on the spiritual encore, "Pass Me Not." Maybe this show would've been more lively if Thompson had been in the wings (as he was that night), pumping his fist in the air and yelling, "Give 'em hell! Give 'em hell! Crush them!! Crush them like dogs!!"

This week's show offered a lovely "greatest hits" introduction to "Lyle 101" for the uninitiated. And it was clear that the performance won many converts.

But for those who knew better, we expected more.