Back in the day, it was kind of fun when you’d go to a live show and hear the band announce that you were going to be on a live album recorded that night. The thought crossed my mind watching Lydia Loveless, when she stepped on Mountainstage in Charlestown for a taping of a forthcoming West Virginia Public Broadcasting radio program.
Host Larry Gross got a communal roar from the studio audience when he announced their applause would soon be heard around the world. He then welcomed Loveless, the Columbus-based singer, as a neighbor of ours. She strapped on her acoustic guitar for a show ahead of the Indigo Girls and Wynonna Judd.
Loveless’ five-piece band has been together long enough that it seemed odd to see them as just a four-piece. Without guitarist Todd May standing in his customary spot to Loveless’ left, it seemed somewhat empty.
But this was a night to appreciate the talents of the band members, in particular pedal steel guitarist Jay Gasper. Loveless has called him a musical genius and he’s had a major influence on the sound and architecture of her new album Real. When Gasper came into the band, he helped to paint the sounds that accentuate Loveless’ emotions and helped fill the band’s sound. On Mountainstage, Gasper gave the opening song “Same To You” and closer “Real” both atmosphere and landscape. On two of the songs, “More Than Ever” and “Bilbao,” Gasper switched to twelve-string guitar to provided the subtle but glistening pop sound that had hints of power pop laced with the British Invasion.
A few days later, Loveless was in Nashville for the Americana Music Association’s annual AmericanaFest. She made several appearances, including Bloodshot Records’ Backyard Barbeque and an appearance webcast by NPR and hosted by critic and correspondent Ann Powers and contributor Jewly Hight. The setting was the lobby of the Union Station Hotel.
This time she was accompanied by May, the guitarist she respects so much she has said she can’t imagine making music without him. May stood behind Loveless, who was engaged with Dawes in a game of “Americana Alphabet.” Each had to take a card from a deck with a letter on one side and a word inscribed on the back. They then had to share how it related to Americana, describe their own work and sing a song.
Hight noted that people think they know both artists but both have changed on their new albums. Loveless agreed, saying the concept of her new record is that things change and evolve. With Americana being a genre of tradition, Loveless made an interesting point: “If you call it Americana, it’s America, which is still such a young country and it’s constantly changing.”
It was Loveless’ turn to pick. Her card came up. She got the letter B for “boozing.”
“Oh lord,” said the singer, who couldn’t think of anything… When the suggestion came to elaborate on a non-boozing song, Loveless demurred and turned to May. “Todd, what do you think?” May punted and Loveless suggested they play “Midwestern Guys” from Real.
She wasn’t quite off the hook though, as the game show hosts wanted to know how it figured into her work. Loveless admitted she got tired about people saying her past songs were all about drinking when she thought they were about so much more.
Elaborating on “Midwestern Guys,” Loveless shared that it was inspired by stories she heard from friends in Ohio about the tales of their youth during the Eighties, including crashing into trees and ditches. “People think it’s a funny song but a lot of the guys did not survive.”
At Mountainstage, Loveless played on a small stage for an intimate studio audience. In Nashville she stood inside the hotel lobby, her voice reaching far and wide and high into the spacious area. May picked over the melody with a few Def Leppard licks to accentuate the reference to the band’s “Pyromania.” The name of Def Leppard’s album emerges in the song as almost a character unto itself. While in Nashville, Loveless also played it at the Bloodshot party and slowed it down a little, giving it an even more reflective solo reading.
One of Loveless’ greatest gifts is her innate predisposition to be able to reinterpret her work. No song ever sounds the same and you can always look forward to the subtle variations, whether a phrase here, a nuance there or a mood that puts what you’re hearing in a different context.
Loveless and band just started on a month-long tour opening for the Drive-By-Truckers, retracing many of the same highways she and her band travelled by van during the filming of Gorman Bechard’s documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless?
I’m looking forward to seeing the full band when it comes to Washington, D.C. for a return to the Rock and Roll Hotel. Their show last year was one the band called one of their best and used the word transcendent to describe. Until then, it is fun to go back to the Audiotree sessions recorded ahead of the release of Real. The sound is of the band at its purest and the separation between instruments lets you hear them at their best.
In the old days before the internet, bands would tour behind their albums for two to three hundred shows a year. The wonders of streaming now allow you to tune in to events like Mountainstage, NPR’s “Americana Alphabet segment” and the Audiotree sessions. But it masks the thousands of miles and sweat equity it takes to get between shows and make for a tour.
As much as things change, they still stay the same.