The middle-aged woman led the way down the center aisle, arms waving heavenward, her body swaying with every step.
The crowd of 2,500 was clapping furiously and blaring out the chorus — “I’m a soldier in the army of the Lord” — as a couple made that same journey down the aisle. A few more people trailed them and then more came until the stagefront at Casino del Sol’s AVA on Thursday resembled an altar call at a tent revival.
Texas troubadour Lyle Lovett had been summoning these folks to get out of their seats and testify for the better part of his 2 1/2 hour concert. By evening’s end, they couldn’t resist the urge any longer.
His Tucson concert — with his taut and talented Large Band in tow, folkie Shawn Colvin filling in harmony vocals and an outstanding Tucson gospel choir sitting in to elicit the amens and hallelujahs — felt a lot like a revival.
That is if a revival kicked off with a quirky, hand-clapping gospel about a preacher droning on into the dinner hour.
“To the Lord let praises be / It’s time for dinner now let’s go eat,” Lovett sang, and his trio of fine backup singers seconded the motion in pitch-perfect harmony.
Lovett has never been one to shoot straight from the hip, even when it comes to his faith. He always tosses in an I-got-you twist that you didn’t quite see coming.
His style flip-flops between genres, and songs are wrapped in musical flourishes that transcend easy labeling. He and his astute Large Band — a mandolin player, fiddler, stand-up bass, congo drummer, drummer, pianist, cellist, a pair of guitarists, steel guitar and a trio of backup singers — kicked off the evening with “Church,” the one about the long-winded preacher, and sprinkled in bluegrass, blues, rockabilly, traditional country and Texas swing.
You didn’t fall into a groove; you followed the flow.
You wrapped your brain around seeing a timid Lovett in an ill-fitting suit stroll quietly on stage to sing harmony for two songs during Colvin’s opening set encore. A few minutes later, a more confident Lovett, still in the suit that seemed a bit snug at the midriff, was invigorated, commanding.
You rejoiced in the gospel introduction, and you cheered on the 10-member Gospel Music Workshop of America Tucson Chapter choir as they bounced on their toes to every hallelujah-evoking phrase. Lovett has recruited a local gospel choir in every town he visits and he bills them as a special guests. From the way he worked with the Tucson group and the time they spent on stage — about 35 minutes — he treats them as such.
You also found yourself spending a lot of time laughing as he grilled cellist John Hagen on his Western upbringing and traded repartee with Colvin that sounded a lot like the unflinching cadence of the “Saturday Night Live” NPR spoof.
But it is Lovett’s steadfast conviction not to conform to any musical genre that kept you mesmerized late into the night.
Lovett had something for everyone. The soulful ballad “If I Were the Man You Wanted,” punctuated with a mournful cello line and the moan of steel guitar, straddled blues and modern country. Strains of traditional twang flavor his classic “Long Tall Texan” and soulful blues burnished the rollicking “My Baby Don’t Tolerate.” Bluegrass hues were deep in “Keep It In Your Pantry,” and the gospel “Ain’t No More Cane,” while Texas swing was pronounced in his toe-tapping “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas).”
By the end of the night, you found yourself joining the chorus of amens and hallelujahs, and tossing in a yahoo for good measure.