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Lovett raises a mighty, joyful noise at Britt

Lyle Lovett didn’t make it into his fourth decade headlining with the fads and frippery you see in the music business these days. He stays where he’s at the old-fashioned way. He plays danged good music, with humor and class.

I hadn’t seen Lovett with his Large Band in 20-odd years. There’d been shows with his smaller, acoustic band, and duo shows with John Hiatt or Robert Earle Keen, but Thursday night on the third gig of his summer tour, Lovett showed up at Britt Festivals with the Large Band and raised a mighty, joyful noise to the skies.

Lovett’s 11-piece band kicked off the show with some flashy instrumental riffs and was quickly joined on the stage by surprise guests Derrick Mcduffey and Kingdom Sound from Portland, whom Lovett had invited to join the band in Jacksonville. That added a kick-butt, nine-piece choir to the mix as “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord” kicked off the evening in a rockin’ gospel vein (imagine Red Foster’s “I Got My Mojo Workin’ ” transplanted from the juke joints to the church, with churchy lyrics).

Lovett explained to the crowd that most of the guys in the band had known each other for many years, but they’d never played with the Kingdom Sound folks before.

“Just sing whatever you want,” he deadpanned to the choir.

Resplendent in black suit and gray tie with a pocket handkerchief, his hair not as tall as it used to be, Lovett sang, picked acoustic guitar and shared the spotlight generously.

The wry old Lovett favorite “Church” came up early and was as irresistible as ever.

The thing about the Large Band is that these aren’t just some backup hired guns behind the famous guy; every one of them is a quality player, and they flat get into it.

This is a band that can take an old '50s chestnut such as Henry Strzelecki’s “Long, Tall Texan,” dear to 1,000 bar bands nobody will ever remember, and turn it into a loping revelation.

Lovett talked about the music business over the years. Originally from Klein, Texas, near Houston, he’s been in the business since 1980. Countless concerts and records and four Grammy Awards later, having survived his marriage to Julia Roberts (they remained friends) and a 2002 mauling by a bull on his Uncle’s farm in Texas, he looks and sounds good.

He told of receiving the understated blessings, when he was just coming up, of Texas music legends Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, both of whom, he said with tongue-in-cheek bathos, told him they heard he was … alright.

But that doesn’t explain how you come up with a song such as the quirky “Penguins,” which Lovett and company spiced up with some little Rockette-like dance steps. And which was followed by a song that’s called (I think) “Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel,” which featured a whole bunch of musicians just burning up the stage with a country boogie in which multiple choruses found them singing in unison, “Choke my chicken, choke my chicken.” There was also clucking involved.

There was sexy saxophone jazz. There were heartbreaking Guy Clark ballads. There was Lovett throwing out philosophical bits of wisdom such as, “Life is complicated.”

People get carried away with labels, but if you have to call all this something, call if jazzy cowboy alt-country swing gospel Americana. Just picture Lowell George and Ella Fitzgerald singing Townes Van Zandt songs with Bob Wills’ band. Whatever you call it, it ages well.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Lyle Lovett and His Large Band performed Thursday at Britt in Jacksonville. Photo courtesy Britt Music & Arts Festival