It didn’t seem as much of a “who” as it was a “where.” The recent documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless? already dealt with the first question. But as time has gone on since her last album Real, it’s morphed more into where is Lydia Loveless?
It’s been three years since Lydia recorded Real and nearly two since its release. In between there’s been the single release of “Desire” and “Sorry” and the Boy Crazy and Singles (Bloodshot Records) compilation. The singer has done sporadic solo performances since moving from her native Columbus to North Carolina.
When Lydia stepped onstage in Charlottesville on a Friday night with her formidable band and launched into “Chris Isaak,” it was like she was singing it for the first time. All felt in sync again.
The show had all of the hallmarks of what makes Loveless and band a must see: her soaring voice and emotionally enthralling songs, the melding of three guitars and the frenzied all-out rock and roll that is prone to break out at any moment. She is difficult to pigeonhole and is genre defiant, with a mercurial persona prone to experimentation. Over the last decade, she has written a body of songs that stand with anyone, often reinterpreted in new ways that add new context over time. And with a different set list every night, no show is the same.
This almost two-week-long mini-tour was born out of a one-off festival appearance in Alabama, was a trial run to road test new material, Since Loveless introduced several new songs in Columbus to the band a few weeks ago, the introduction of new material became a large focus of the new set. And that’s likely what she had in mind taking the band into the studio for a few days after the last show.
When George Hondroulis laid a heavy, solid drumbeat two songs in, it was more than shaking out the cobwebs from a long lay-off from the road. Against thick dense triple guitar chords, Loveless kept up a refrain that gained intensity as it went on.
“That’s what we call new song” she said with a smile that translated that the band had nailed it.
Sandwiched in between the title track of “Real” and “Midwestern Guys,” Loveless introduced another new song called “Only Words.” It’s as close as she’s come to a song that sounds like Bob Dylan. I felt like I was hearing the soulful side of “I Shall Be Released” that as it went on was more like a composite with strains of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively 4th Street.”
In the self-described encores, she brought back the band for a new song called “The Wringer.” It had an infectious funk groove, a little bit on the side of “Heaven.” Jay Gasper was riffing, his fingers not as much flying as following and feeling a new song still in progress with Loveless holding a note to a thrilling crescendo.
By then she had already done her solo interlude, debuting two new minor key songs, admitting most of her new songs are about death. In a song in which she pondered “when I’m gone,” I heard the phrase about walking around a casket. When she asked if people had any experience with death, she walked it back laughing and sheepishly admitting it was a terrible joke.
I imagine the period leading up to making a new album is tedious. On a radio station stop near her adopted new town, Loveless and bandmate Jay Gasper sat in together for an afternoon on WHUP. She admitted it’s the longest stretch of time she’s been writing alone and made light of it saying, “I hope to make another record one day.”
Ensconced in rehearsals earlier that day, Todd May was playing drums and Loveless was teasing the multi-instrumentalist Gasper that he just might learn to play sax. The band was getting ready to go back to work.
Onstage in Charlottesville, the boxes and switches at the foot of stage-right are like Jay’s workshop. Gasper flipped a switch and suddenly we were transported to a trippy Middle Eastern-like loop for the intro to “Out On Love.” Gasper, who I heard once described by Lydia as a musical genius, was up and down all night, hopping from his pedal steel seat where he layers the expansiveness for “Real” and melancholy for “Chris Isaak” to grabbing a plethora of guitars. On his electric twelve-string his mid-Sixties English accents that accentuate “More Than Ever” are illustrative of Loveless’ pop palette. Loveless joked that Jay was getting a cardio workout. Instead of standing desk, perhaps they should get him a standing seat.
In Who Is Lydia Loveless?, the documentary bringing you inside to the making of Real. Loveless’ band are less sidemen than they are her creative partners. Guitarist May describes working on her songs akin to painting. The expansiveness of the album’s sound was transformative for the artist who shed conventions and expectations of where people wanted to place her in the alt-country sphere.
May called out the intro to “Longer” like he was marshaling the Clash. On the recorded version of “Longer,” the lush, layered harmonies and Beach Boys-like vocal crescendo is aspirational and reaches new heights for her band. During the night May’s vocals buttressed Loveless’ most emotional and tender moments. May embodies the personification of rock and roll, playing his guitar horizontally dangled at his feet almost to the floor as “Same To You” reached its climax. May was grinding the neck of his guitar into the concrete wall to his left, searching for new dissonance in the cacophony of soundscape of during “Out on Love.” There was a tease at the end with the opening pedal steel strains of “Somewhere Else.” It was on the set list but Loveless called an audible and led the band through “The Wringer.”
In the coming weeks, she will board a tour bus and play solo opening up for Justin Townes Earle, the singer who was once referenced in an old Loveless song. In her early days in Columbus, she wrote a hilarious tale of a creepy guy who kept coming to her shows trying to strike up interest in joining her band. She dubbed him the Steve Earle of Columbus with the memorable line: “And I keep asking, ‘Steve, would you please introduce me to your son?’”
You’re not likely to hear “Steve Earle” from an era long gone by. But on a night when we heard three of her best songs, “Head,” “Chris Isaak” and the showstopper “Verlaine Loves Rimbaud,” the biggest takeaway was the creative spurt that’s driving the next album. Her perseverance to create new songs and explore new sounds reminded me of a quote from Jackson Browne, who, during the making of Running On Empty and at the same age as Loveless is today, said at the time: “I’m 27 and I don’t mind trying.”
There’s usually a letdown when a tour stops but this time it’s the start of something new. The process for a new album has begun. The new songs are road-tested and ready for this special group of people. Pre Production cannot start soon enough.
Check out Lydia Loveless, here.