Jazz Fest faithful look forward each year to “Locals Thursday,” the opening day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s second weekend, and professional Texan Lyle Lovett was its perfect headliner Thursday.
On a relaxed, comfortable afternoon at the Fair Grounds when humidity took the day off, the laid-back Lovett was right in sync.
Lovett last recorded in 2012, when he put out “Release Me,” his final album with his record label. With no new projects on the immediate horizon, he and his acoustic band had nothing in particular to sell.
Perhaps for that reason, he shared the spotlight with the players in the band, leaving the stage to fiddler Luke Bulla to perform “Temperance Reel” solo, and backing guitarist Keith Sewell on “Let Me Fall.”
Those gestures were as easy and graceful as the band’s performances throughout the set.
Lovett paid tribute to singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester, playing his “Isn’t That So,” but the show was more often simply gentle and heartfelt. “Nobody Knows Me” sounded like a thought Lovett was sharing with 8,000 or so of his closest friends.
The show was tasteful, from the band’s suits to the meticulous sound, so much so that funny songs got more smiles than laughs. The opening “Choke Your Chicken” was a Western swing double entendre that seemed to slide by without many noticing.
As smooth and tasteful as the show could be, though, much of the last half hour was hard-swinging, courtesy of L.A. session great Russ Kunkel on drums. No Texan of Lovett’s generation gets through a set without a Townes Van Zandt song, and Kunkel pushed the band through “White Freightliner Blues” as though he were in a big rig.
The closing “North Dakota” brought the show to a sweet, impeccable end. The simple yearning it captured made the Samsung Galaxy Stage seem intimate, particularly on Locals Thursday.