Living Large with Lyle Lovett at The Mountain Winery
July 27, 2014 (Nipomo, CA)—Geography is not my strength. For years, I mistakenly assumed that Saratoga was a small town tucked away somewhere up north in Napa Valley, out of range for attending concerts at this place called The Mountain Winery. Then Lyle Lovett and his Large Band announced only three California dates for his current summer tour and I was slightly embarrassed when I finally Googled Saratoga. Hell, that’s only a couple hours away, just southwest of San Jose. I broke out the plastic and ordered some tickets.
If you have not been to The Mountain Winery, you must go. It’s an historic venue, akin to the Hollywood Bowl, where the location itself is as much a drawing card as the music. Downtown Saratoga, a collection of very upscale stores and Thai restaurants, is only minutes from Route 85. Saratoga is apparently the most wealthy suburb in California, so certainly admire the well-manicured homes along Pierce Road, but don’t even think about buying unless you’ve got high tech money.
Beyond the downtown, the narrow road twists and turns, but that’s only a warm-up for your eventual drive up to the winery. Yes, The Mountain Winery is actually on top of a mountain, accessible by only the thinnest of roads. More twists and turns before you hit the summit. Parking ($20) is easy enough, but you are quickly rewarded for your journey with The View. Spread out before you is the entire Santa Clara Valley with downtown San Jose sparkling in the distance at sunset. Trust me, it’s a pretty impressive opening act.
There is a fascinating history to the winery, originally founded in the 19th century by the famed Paul Masson, but I’ll spare you all the details and instead mention that the original concert bowl opened in 1958. The 2500-seat outdoor venue features the smallest stage I’ve seen, a facade with an Old California theme. The sound is great and there’s truly not a bad seat. And since there’s no backstage at The Mountain Winery, you get to watch the performers enter and exit from the main building and walk on to the stage. Let’s just say we were impressed as we took our $55 seats, already thinking about what other concerts we might return to see.
Be prepared for the typical venue sticker shock for food—a bottle of water and a small baguette will run you $19. There are drunks everywhere, and no, they don’t shut up during the concert. We were surrounded by talkers in the audience, but I’ve given up fighting that battle. The one caution to visiting The Mountain Winery is the wind. The temperature dips quickly even on a hot July evening—can’t imagine what the place is like in October.
Charlotte and I both had the same immediate reaction to The Mountain Winery—this is the place Vina Robles in Paso Robles aspires to be, a winery-based outdoor venue attracting big names and sold-out crowds for summer shows.
The concert itself began with a four-song set by Alaska Reid, a talented young woman still in her teens, who actually had some in the audience listening to her by the end. She’s good. But we were here for Lyle. He loves performing at The Mountain Winery. On stage, he tells the story about playing so long one night, the promoters finally shut off the power to get him to leave.
Lyle Lovett and Chris Isaak opening duet. Photo by CV Wells
We knew we were in for something special when Chris Isaak strode out on stage and welcomed the crowd by proclaiming that this was his most favorite venue to perform. An Isaak concert was scheduled for the next night, so he made a special trip up the road to introduce his old friend and stick around for an opening duet. Lyle took it from there and didn’t stop for nearly two-and-a-half hours.
The Large Band is actually a dozen very talented musicians, all men dressed in dark suits, anchored by the legendary Russ Kunkel on drums, a musician so famous that even I have heard of him. Lyle also used to travel with as many as four back-up singers, but lately he’s trimmed that down to just one, but in this case, it was the famed Atlanta-based Francine Reed. She hasn’t been with Lyle for several years, so the two of them touring again was a special incentive to buy tickets.
There is nothing flashy about Lyle Lovett. He doesn’t run around stage, nor depend upon some kind of elaborate stage show. He’ll crack jokes and tell some interesting stories. He’s not afraid to step aside and let Francine or one of the band members do a song. For him, it’s clearly about the music and he stands center stage, strumming his guitar and marching through a long set list. Most of the songs are only recognizable to the hardcore believers. I don’t think Lyle has ever enjoyed a bona fide musical “hit,” but I don’t know of a better musical storyteller.
During his last few tours with the Large Band, Lyle has shied away from new material and has mostly drawn from his earlier albums, meaning we were treated to vintage standards. Opening with Stand by Your Man, the songs came fast and furious: Penguins, Nobody Knows Me, Here I Am, What Do You Do, Church, If I Had a Boat, LA County and an extended version of I’ve Been to Memphis featuring solos by each band member. My only gripe is that Lyle chose not to play my personal favorite, the haunting North Dakota, which made for such a powerful encore during last summer’s appearance at Vina Robles.
Closing Time announced the end of the show. The lights of San Jose twinkled in the distance as we made our way back to the car. Driving time from the parking lot, down the hill, back to our hotel in Campbell, was under 30 minutes. Not bad. A magical venue. A great concert. Well worth the drive.