Much of Lucinda Williams' catalogue explores the depths of pain and loss, be it in alternative country, folk, or blues fusion form. While she does have some up tempo tracks in her catalogue (often of the bawdy, blues-influenced variety) her best songs usually find her describing misery of some kind. It's the sort of thing that makes her one of the best songwriters in the world, but could threaten to make an evening of her music a less than thrilling night out.
Despite the sadness the underlines many of Williams' best tracks, I've never seen her music as something you'd play to cry along to. Instead, it's what you play when you're all cried out, and either numb from the pain, or finished with being sad and ready to be a little angry. It makes some of her albums the perfect accompaniment to a quiet evening of brooding (whether or not you have something to brood over. I often like to live vicariously through other people's misery in the place of any of my own), but I wasn't sure it would work as well as an evening surrounded by strangers looking to clap and cheer.
When the show began, Williams wasn't quick to appease these doubts. After a quiet acoustic version of "I Just Wanted to See You So Bad" with only guitarist Doug Pettibone as accompaniment, she launched into cuts from her new album Little Honey with the rest of her backing band joining in (the band goes by the name Buick 6, who did double-duty as the warm-up act of the show with a mostly instrument set). For the first couple songs following "I Just Wanted to See You So Bad", Williams was without an instrument of her own (besides her distinctive voice), and seemed a little unsure of what to do (you know, besides sing).
It was hard to tell if it was simply early show nerves, a lack of comfort with her newer tracks (she had a binder with her on stage on a stool that seemed to have the lyrics or something on it), or simply not knowing what to do with her hands without a guitar to hold on to. Despite her uneasy stage presence, she was still nailing the songs (suggesting that she knows the words just fine, and either uses the binder just in case — she has written a lot of songs after all — or maybe it had other things in it). But it did leave me wondering if her music is just a little too intimate and personal to properly experience in such crowded circumstances.
Luckily, after a couple songs without, she strapped on her guitar again for "People Talkin" (off the World Without Tears album) and any uneasiness I detected earlier stripped away. That was followed by "Jailhouse Tears", a cheeky duet with Pettibone stepping in for Elvis Costello, who performs the duet with Williams on the album. From this point on, the music was lively, Williams was engaged, and the evening quickly melted away.
It should be noted that even if Williams had never found her groove and the concert had proceeded in a similar fashion to the first few songs, it still would have been worthwhile (if a little awkward). The visuals may have been a little off with Williams' fidgeting, but the music was superb from the offset. Buick 6 are a group of true professionals, whose creative rehearsals lead Williams to suggest that they do their own thing, cutting an instrumental rock album and serving as her opening act. Pettibone has been with her for awhile, and has his own solo album on the side, with Chet Lyster filling out the sound on rhythm guitars and keyboards, David Sutton on bass (guitar and double), and Butch Norton driving the whole show with a variety of drums (he was probably the highlight of Buick 6's warm-up).
But the highlight was Lucinda Williams' distinctive voice. With its inflections, drops, and cracks, it often sounds like Williams started recording not long after a two day bender of beer, whiskey, and tears. It's an earthy voice that is instantly affecting, before one has a chance to embrace any other element of the songs (like, for instance, her brilliant lyrics). The worry about singers with distinctive, nontraditional voices is that they might not be able to duplicate the sound live that they get in studio. A couple years ago I saw Cat Power perform, with Chan Marshall having to go through several uncomfortable-looking contortions to get her voice, sometimes losing it or unable to sustain it all the way through verses.
This wasn't the case at all with Williams, who sounded album-perfect through much of the evening, even during the earlier, shakier moments of the show. Her voice combined with Buick 6's technical mastery were enough to win the night, keeping the crowd enraptured throughout, whether it be up tempo numbers like "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings" and "Honey Bee", or quiet, sad songs like "Overtime" and "Little Rock Star" (which was probably the highlight of the night for me).
A big assist goes to the venue, the Jack Singer Concert Hall. It's a tailor-made venue for real musicians, with the best acoustics in town. It's the sort of venue where you don't need much else than a great band and a great voice for a great evening of music.
I Just Wanted to See You So Bad
Tears of Joy
Fruits of My Labor
Out of Touch
Little Rock Star
Changed the Locks
Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings
Four Strong Winds (Ian & Sylvia cover)
Long Way to the Top (AC/DC cover)