Last week, New Yorkers were treated to five nights of Lucinda Williams’ concerts.
Williams is one of the most celebrated singer songwriters of the past 25 years. Her body of work defies conventional categories blending folks, blues, country and rock into a unique and organic distillation. Williams played five sold out shows across two venues, Irving Plaza and Town Hall.
The first set of each show was devoted to one of five studio albums: World without Tears; Essence; Car Wheels on Gravel Road; Sweet Old World; and the eponymously titled Lucinda Williams.
The second sets mixed material from her other recordings and featured guest stars like Jim Lauderdale, Willie Nile, Joan Osborn and members of Yo La Tengo. I had the pleasure of catching her final show this past Thursday at Town Hall, a performance which featured her 1988 release, Lucinda Williams. This is a sublime album of narratives that address themes of unrequited love, heartbreak and emotional wreckage as well as more upbeat rockers.
These songs represent some of her most enduring compositions. Several of these songs have been performed by other artists such Mary Chapin Carpenter who had a huge hit with "Passionate Kisses" and Tom Petty who recorded "I Changed the Locks." The album is sadly out of print at the moment.
She played the same set of concerts in Los Angeles a few weeks earlier. All of the concerts were recorded and are available as individual CDs or as boxed sets.
Lucinda Williams’ concerts are never predictable affairs. More often than not, they are magnificent experiences. However, on some occasions, they teeter dangerously on the precipice of a train wreck. On this night she straddled the boundary, but in the end delivered a truly transcendent experience to a devoted and supportive crowd.
First Set: Lucinda Williams
tours with an outstanding band that includes the brilliant Doug Pettibone on lead guitar, the equally fine Chet Lyster on rhythm, lead and pedal steel guitar and a mighty rhythm section featuring David Sutton on bass and the mighty Butch Norton behind the drums.
Singer-songwriter extraordinaire, Jim Lauderdale, sat in for most of the first set and some of the second as well. He is widely regarded as a country folk artist, but his music covers the gamut of blues, rock, and bluegrass.
Jim and Lucinda are old friends and they meshed beautifully together. He sang harmony and occasionally lead vocal and played rhythm guitar. Their duets were among the highlights of the set. Susan Marshall, a singer from Memphis, sang backup and harmony vocals on a number of songs over the course of the two sets. Marshall has a powerful and soulful voice and is equally at home singing rockers or ballads.
The show opened with lovely renditions of "I Just Want to See You So Bad" and "The Night’s too Long." Between songs, Williams would banter with the audience, recounting stories of the origin of the songs and talking about other artists whose renditions of her tunes she admired. She also talked about her early career struggles and how Nashville record labels were reluctant to allow other artists such as Patty Loveless to record Williams because the lyrics were too suggestive.
One of the objectionable lines from "The Night’s Too Long" is “I'm gonna find me one who wears a leather jacket and likes his living rough." Her raps were both endearing and very funny.
The first half of the first set was fine aside from a couple of false starts. A rocking "Big Red Sun Blues" and a deeply melancholy "Like a Rose" were highlights. However, the false starts increased in their frequency as the set progressed and Lucinda grew increasingly and visibly agitated.
She would begin a song in the wrong key and after 30 seconds or so, halt the performance. After one false start, she dropped a giant binder with all of her songs and her production manager had to restore it to the music stand and find the right page.
Much of the crowd found this to be amusing and she soldiered on. Lucinda still managed to deliver ragged, but moving versions of "Crescent City" (a nod to New Orleans, a city close to her birth place) and "Side of the Road" (perhaps my favorite Lucinda tune). Toward the end of the set, things seem to be unraveling and the band seemed to lose its groove at points. They managed to hold it together, however, to play a rather pedestrian version of Howlin Wolf’s "I Asked for Water (He Gave Me Gasoline)."
Despite these off-kilter moments, the crowd’s enthusiasm and support never wavered. There is simply no artifice or pretense to Lucinda Williams—none on her albums or in her stage presence.
The false starts have become almost tradition, accepted as part of the organic feel to a Lucinda show. Many fans find it to be part of her appeal. One member of Lucinda’s Forum described it aptly as “live and in the moment.” In general, the highs far outstripped the lows and there were many magnificent moments and moving renditions of some of her best songs.
Everybody was much looser and in better spirits for the second set. However, it was no less predictable.
My expectation was that she would play selections from her catalog with an emphasis on tunes from West, her most recent recording. Guest appearances often result in polite uninspired music with much self-congratulation.
On this occasion, I thought the set worked brilliantly from beginning to end with all of the guests making excellent contributions. The band sounded a little too reserved during the first set, but just smoked throughout the second. I had forgotten that they can sound like the most dangerous band on the planet at the drop of a hat.
The set opened with Jim Lauderdale leading a beautiful rendition of his own Lost in the Lonesome Pines, a song he recorded with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. Lauderdale and Williams have great chemistry and their voices blend just perfectly. I can’t say that I ever have been a devoted fan of country music. But as the years pass, the boundaries seem less and less important. Lauderdale and Williams simply obliterate such divisions without any conscious effort and render them completely meaningless.
The next two guests certainly caught me and apparently most others totally by surprise.
You figure Lucinda is connected with the community of roots rockers, but her tastes in artists are much more varied than one would think. David Byrne wouldn’t be the first artist to come to mind. He entered to a rousing ovation from the audience and performed three songs that were among the highlights including Buck Naked from his first solo album, a drop-dead gorgeous version of the and Talking Head’s "Heaven" (‘Heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever Happens).
Byrne also sang a lovely duet with Lucinda on her tune "Over Time," a wonderful torch song that I hope one day becomes a jazz standard. Susan Marshall played a supporting role for most of the night. But took a star turn and delivered a truly powerful and relatively faithful rendition of Janis Joplin’s "Piece of My Heart" that just rocked the house.
If Byrne was a pleasant surprise, David Johansen’s guest appearance was a really left-field turn. [Was Lou Reed unavailable? ]. Johansen and Williams performed (yet another) duet of "Jailhouse Tears," a composition that Lucinda has been performing for a couple of years but has never appeared on album.
It’s classic-style country duet between the lecherous, unreliable, good-for-nothing male and the scorned angry woman who’s not going to take it any more. It’s what I imagine George Jones and Tammy Wynette sounded like in their famous battles except without the profanity. Here is a sample of the lyrics:
You’re drunk, you’re a stoner,
You never came back
They locked me up and
You locked me out
You tried to steal my truck
That’s not what this is about
I used to be a user,
Now I’m all out of stuff
You’re a three time loser,
You’re all f*cked up.
It was very funny and just totally satisfying. Johansen played the part perfectly as if he was type-cast. This segued into a totally kick-ass version of the New York Dolls proto-punk classic “Looking for a Kiss.” The band just roared, playing with ferocity of the Dolls but with the monster chops of a crack band.
A couple of nights earlier, Lucinda performed a duet with Willie Nile on the Ramones’ "I Wanna be Sedated." I wasn’t there, but the clip is available on Youtube.
The last two songs of the second set, if memory serves me well, "Honeybee," an unrecorded song that is as close to punk as Lucinda has ever got and "Joy" an angry rocker from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
The band appeared totally stoked after playing the Dolls’ tune and was simply on fire. Joy featured an exciting guitar duel (of sorts) with Pettibone and Lyster. It ended with both guitarists wrestling in a pool of mud on the floor of the stage (not really). It was great fun.
The second set was just a total gas.
For the encore, I was anticipating any number of great Lucinda-penned tunes and was hoping for Ventura (a personal favorite). So what happened next? David Byrne returns to sing the Al Green soul classic, "Take Me to the River." It was totally surreal, but I loved it. It was a fitting end to a completely unpredictable, but memorable evening of music.