Gig Review: Lyle Lovett and Sarah Jarosz at the SummerTyne Americana Festival, Gateshead
As a finale to the weekend-long Gateshead Summertyne Americana Festival, it would take considerable effort to come up with a more apposite combination than the country superstar Lyle Lovett supported by wunderkind Sarah Jarosz.
Unsurprisingly, the combination works perfectly. Now an old hand at the ripe old age of 20, Jarosz is perfectly at home on the sizeable Sage stage, all moody, professional lighting and pin-sharp sound. Flanked by cellist Nathaniel Smith and violinist Alex Hargreaves, with Jarosz herself alternating between banjo and acoustic guitar, all three are clearly virtuosos, but to their credit never let the technical side of the performance overshadow the emotional impact of the material. Cello fans in particular are well-served by Smith's pizzicato technique: a jaw-dropping masterclass in muscular precision. At once upbeat and yearning, mellow and energetic, there is a natural balance to Jarosz's songs that would be rare in a writer twice her age; particularly the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired "Annabelle Lee", which in its three minutes of museum-quality songwriting perfectly encapsulates the entire genre of Americana.
There can't be many times when Lyle Lovett takes the stage with something to prove, but when the band kick into the ridiculous "Chicken Reel", with its whoops and execrable refrain of "I'm gonna choke my chicken", figurative alarm bells start to ring. Thankfully, this is the only misstep of the whole two-hour performance; not to say there isn't a great deal of humour – there is, Lovett displaying a talent for banter and comic timing that would surely have seen him a successful comic performer if music hadn't come a-callin'. But the more subtle humour of "Pantry" serves the song well, and Lovett's one-liners create an instant rapport with the audience – in typical Geordie fashion, not afraid to make their opinions known with good-natured heckling.
As Lovett makes clear, "the trouble with these beautiful, well-engineered acoustic rooms is... you can hear everything!" The highlight of the performance is a bluegrass interlude – modestly, Lovett claims to not have the credentials to claim to be a genuine bluegrass performer, but he has assembled a group of young musicians who certainly do. The band, temporarily reduced to a four-piece, crowd round a single microphone. A stunning set of bluegrass-inspired songs ensues, including material written by the late "Godfather of Americana" Walter Hyatt, a particular passion of Lovett's.
As professional as a Buckingham Palace butler, chops as sharp as their suits, Lovett and his band can rightly claim to be a fine advertisement for how Americana can reach the heights of commercial success and still maintain its integrity. Universal themes of humour, poignancy, jealousy and love all jostle for airtime. And when we're almost done, a good dose of down-home, darn tootin' good time vibes from "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)" brings out the Lone Star flag and reminds us that, no matter how diverse our roots, we can all find common ground in a decent bit of music.