February 10, 2005

Four guys with guitars

Dr. Dregs finally got to enjoy one of his Christmas gifts last night -- concert tickets to a show featuring Guy Clark, Joe Ely, John Hiatt, and Lyle Lovett at the State Theater. We weren't sure what to expect, having bought the tickets because Dr. Dregs is a huge Lyle Lovett fan (both of us are only moderately interested in the other three). It turned out to be well worth the money: the show was mellow and funny -- just four guys with their acoustic guitars, playing together because they thought it would be fun.

The stage was set very simply: four chairs in a row, with small tables holding water bottles behind the chairs. All four musicians came onstage together and took their seats. They took turns performing (in "alphabetical order," they claimed, with Clark first and Lovett last), moving through six sets with a song by each musician, with one or two of the others occasionally dropping in with a vocal harmony or a guitar solo. At the end of the show, all four did a couple of Woody Guthrie tunes together: "Ain't Gonna Be Treated This Way," and "This Land is Your Land."

The simplicity of the presentation -- just the performers and their guitars -- put the focus strongly on the quality of the songs and performances. All four showed how accomplished they are as solo peformers, with Lovett and especially Hiatt turning in particularly fabulous interpretations of their songs. But the pure emphasis on the songs really turned the evening into a celebration of great (and often underappreciated) songwriting. Lovett mentioned early in the show that he considered Clark, Ely, and Hiatt to be his "songwriting heroes," and there was a special complementarity among all of the songs that enriched the whole performance even further.

In my experience, this kind of thing happens all too rarely in concerts by big name stars. While the performances may be dazzling in both production and execution, such concerts are often infused with a sense of fatigue for the material -- if not for performing itself. There was none of that last night; Clark, Ely, Hiatt, and Lovett all seemed genuinely glad to be performing, and the crowd knew it. The Strib reviewer called the show a love-in between performers and audience, which strikes me as just about right. It's proof that audiences can be trusted to appreciate substance over flash.

Posted by at February 10, 2005 1:29 PM