Lovett projects a droll, unpredictable stage presence. "I'm the guy who sits next to you and reads the newspaper over your shoulder," he says in the spoken-word introduction to "Here I Am," a signature number. "Wait don't turn the page. I'm not finished." Cue snare drum and piano, then wily horns, then Lovett's seductive chorus. His 1999 album Live in Texas starts out with "Penguins," another comic staple of his. The uninitiated can scratch their heads at the ridiculous deadpan chorus, "Penguins are so sensitive to my needs" while those in the know listen to see whether he still nods cleverly toward his ex-wife by leaving out the line about movie stars ("I don't go for fancy cars, / Diamond rings, and " Lovett sings on the live album. "Hmm hmm hmm," a backup singer fills in helpfully).
Lovett is heading a simple trio at the Folk Festival, instead of his seventeen-member Large Band. That's probably a sign that his set will lean away from his usual bluesy, brassy live sound and more toward the twang of albums like My Baby Don't Tolerate (2003). Still, he's never simply a country singer. He'd rather play the odd guy with a heart of gold than strike outlaw or regular-folks poses. Though he starts "That's Right (You're Not from Texas)" by laughing at how badly a tourist wears a hat and boots, he quickly turns into the ultimate ambassador for the Lone Star State ("But Texas wants you anyway"). In fact, Lovett's an ambassador for more than Texas. He's our national bandleader, romping through America's songbooks with a wink you hear but never see.