â€œI will always remember this night,â€ Texas-born singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett said from the Paolo Soleri Amphitheatre stage in Santa Fe late Thursday evening. â€œGod bless you folks, and God bless Paolo Soleri.â€
The Santa Fe Indian School, which owns and operates the 45-year-old Paolo Soleri Amphitheatre, announced earlier this summer that Lovettâ€™s concert will be the last ever at the venue, though they have not ruled out preservation. Lovett, who has performed at the amphitheatre more times than any other artist, said that when he met with the venueâ€™s renowned Italian architect Paolo Soleriâ€”now 91â€”at a recent concert in Phoenix the socially and ecologically minded artist shrugged at the demolition rumors.
â€œChange is on all of our minds,â€ Lovett told the capacity audience. â€œIf we live long enough, weâ€™ll experience it.â€ Lovett said it was his intention to perform last night â€œwith [Soleriâ€™s] spirit and vision in mind, and the vision for the world heâ€™s shown us.â€
Lovett then launched into â€œThatâ€™s Right (Youâ€™re Not From Texas),â€ commenting that â€œNew Mexico is a dangerous place to do this song, but Paolo Soleri wouldâ€™ve done well where I come from.â€
Lovettâ€™s immaculately tailored â€œLarge Band,â€ which features over a dozen diverse and talented musicians, traversed poignant country ballads, gritty rock, bluegrass and galloping, tongue-in-cheek Dixie romance. The latter gave the bandâ€™s skilled instrumentalists ample chance to take flight as soloists and as a proficient and tasteful ensemble. The versatile and sometimes awe-inspiring group does well reminding audiences that real country equals stunning musicianship and raw poetry, and Lovett kept the Santa Fe crowd in stitches with his between-song banter, showing the uninitiated that country music is often also hilariously silly and self-deprecating.
Vince Bell, a collaborator and hero of Lovettâ€™s since their embryonic showbiz days in Houston, now lives in Santa Fe and made a two-song appearance in the middle of Lovettâ€™s set. Bell played one country-folk number alone and one with Lovett backing him on vocals and guitar.Â Lovettâ€™s pained but tender and unwavering voice shined on tear-jerkers such as â€œNorth Dakotaâ€ and soared on impressive covers like Townes Van Zandtâ€™s â€œLoretta,â€ with help from a rhythm section just off the James Taylor and Carole King tour. But the Paolo Soleri stole much of the spotlight.
Lovett opened the evening by telling the energized audience, â€œItâ€™s an honor to be here, especially on this night,â€ and his near three-hour set did not disappoint, although the irony inherent in much of the venueâ€™s recent controversy was all too apparent from the get-go. A sense of history and tension was especially evident in the moments after Lovett sang the line â€œon a trail of tears I rideâ€ during â€œNatural Forces,â€ a song he pre-empted with a diatribe about appreciating U.S. soldiers in the Middle East. â€œ[Theyâ€™re] fighting so that Iâ€™m able to watch football on Sundays,â€ Lovett said.
The Indian Schoolâ€™s campus has only been totally Native-controlled since 2000. Two summers ago, officials chose to tear downâ€”sans public noticeâ€”virtually all of the original school, which had a history dating back to 1890 that included rampant oppression and indoctrination of Natives, who were frequently brought to the school from pueblos by whites via kidnapping.Â The Paolo Soleri Amphitheatre, which is notable not only for its intimate beauty but because it was one of Soleriâ€™s few commissioned works, appears to be headed for destruction as well. Opinions abound in northern New Mexico about the need to â€œsaveâ€ the incredible venueâ€”not to mention what some see as the Indian Schoolâ€™s faulty administrationâ€”but opinions are not important in this situation. Music lovers such as the blind woman sitting next to us last night, singing and clapping along to every song Lovett played, will follow their passion wherever necessary; as for the Paoloâ€™s situation, the rights and free will of Natives are all that should be recognized and respected.
Besides Lyle Lovettâ€™s dashing four-member African American backup vocal ensemble and the venueâ€™s all-Indian staff, I saw exactly one black person and less than a half-dozen other people of color in or around the Paolo Soleri last night, though the capacity is listed as 2,900. It would be a tragedy for such a remarkably designed and great-sounding outdoor amphitheatreâ€”with its â€œwishboneâ€ architecture and close-up seating, which literally lets fans converse with performersâ€”to abruptly vanish, leaving only fond memories of concerts by everyone from Leonard Cohen to Phish, but itâ€™s not our choice. Music lovers, promoters and local officials in Santa Fe have no excuse for having never built another similar-sized outdoor venue in the area while presenting only a handful of concerts at the Paolo Soleri each yearâ€”only three in 2010â€”and Natives have zero obligation to privately fund the maintenance of an aging site they really only use for high school graduations.
Santa Fe Indian School officials claim that the renovation necessary to keep the Paolo Soleri Amphitheatre open would cost over $4 million dollars, which does seem outlandish. However, just this week the U.S. government approved continued funding for the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars every month, with no end in sight. If local officlans will not intervene to provide the necessary resources to fix and maintain the Paolo Soleri, its demise is understandable; whatâ€™s more, if the Native-controlled SFIS decides to close the Paolo Soleri no matter the circumstancesâ€”forcing the virtually all-white fans, promoters and performers who frequent the venue to enjoy entertainment elsewhereâ€”theirs is the choice we must accept.