Hurricane Sandy had Lyle Lovett on edge. He was not only concerned for all his friends and fans on the East Coast, but unsure about his shows in New England.
“We were talking to our promoters today,” said Lovett, on the phone Monday from Nashville as Sandy raged in Boston, “trying to figure out what the heck was going on, and if it’s going to affect them, or the shows, or what. There’s really no way to know until it blows through, I suppose.”
Lovett’s five-piece acoustic band played Portsmouth, N.H., New Bedford, and Northampton earlier this week, and, barring any other natural disasters, they’re at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre on Sunday.
The occasion for the acoustic tour is “Release Me,” Lovett’s 11th studio album and the last for his 27-year-old recording contract with Curb/Universal Music Group (hence the record’s cheeky title). A mixture of originals and covers, the record provides a concise snapshot of Lovett’s career: The covers reflect his eclectic tastes, and the new originals are as witty and wry as he’s always been. (“Just for the record,” he deadpanned, “my record came out months before Barbra Streisand’s new record, which she calls ‘Release Me.’ I’m not trying to copy Barbra.”)
The collection, said Lovett, reminds him of “those early days of playing the original music clubs around Houston and hanging out with songwriters like Eric Taylor and John Grimaudo. We’d sit out in the back room of the clubs we’d play; we’d stay late and learn songs, trade songs. That’s how I learned songs like ‘One Way Gal’ from John Grimaudo, and his song, ‘Dress of Laces.’ ” Both of those songs (a country blues and a murder ballad, respectively) appear on “Release Me,” as do renditions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” and “Keep Us Steadfast,” a Lutheran hymnal.
Many of the songs on “Release Me” are longtime staples of Lovett’s live repertoire. He said the process of adapting them for a studio recording didn’t propose many challenges, especially since much of the record was recorded live.
“When you play live as opposed to layering tracks, good musicians have a way of reacting to each other,” said Lovett. “Good, spontaneous things happen that you can’t plan for, no matter how good your arrangements are, how good your idea is. . . . It’s really fun to just push them off the cliff and see what happens.”
Indeed, Lovett's bands — whether acoustic combos or his multi-piece Large Band — have always provided live surprises, from extended cello solos to a cappella breaks. This, explained Lovett, is all by design.
“By the end of the show,” he said, “I want the audience to feel they’ve gotten to know everybody onstage. Essentially, everybody in the band is a character in this play that we’re doing, and at the end of the show, everybody’s had a chance to be featured in some way. That’s what I hope for.”
Like any Lyle Lovett show, Sunday’s concert will likely reflect the musician’s wide range of influences and interests. Lovett’s most popular songs, for example, include the playful ballad “If I Had a Boat,” the gospel-tinged “Church,” and the brassy funk workout “Penguins.” Whatever the song or style, said Lovett, the process is generally the same.
“I like to think that sometimes, I pretend that I know what I’m doing,” said Lovett. “I think writing is hard, and after all these years of making up songs, I still feel like I’m trying to figure it out. It’s not always sitting down and saying, ‘OK, I’m going to write a song.’ Songs come to me more when I’m sitting around playing my guitar. Not to sound too spooky about it, but approaching it in too conscious a way can make me freeze.”
Lovett was reminded of a poster he saw backstage at a club in his early songwriting days.
“Rule number 1 was ‘Write your best song,’ ” he said. “Rule number 2 was ‘Write your worst song.’ I thought, ‘Aha, that makes a lot of sense.’ I think if you write to write, you kind of can’t help it. You can’t think about it much, either.”
Lovett has started writing songs for his next album, but without a record contract, he’s not sure how, or when, they will get released. He said he’s “thinking very seriously” about handling a recording himself, though he’s not quite ready to manage distribution without some help. Whatever happens, it seems unlikely that anything — an evaporating recording industry, hurricanes, or other occupational hazards — will stop Lovett from making music.
“It’s hard to believe,” he said, “when I count it up, that it was 26, 27 years ago that I signed my record deal. It doesn’t feel like a long time. It certainly doesn’t feel like I've been playing professionally for that long, and 10 years before that in clubs, as a local act. That’s like . . . a job.”
Lovett pauses and laughs to himself about his good fortune. “It just doesn’t seem that way.”