It’s rare to walk out of a concert and think, “Damn I was just a witness to a piece of musical history.” On a warm, humid night last Tuesday I thought just that.
I came late to Lucinda Williams. I was introduced to Lu (as her adoringly rabid fans refer to her) in 2003 with the release World Without Tears, a mixed bag of the sublime (Righteously, Over Time) and the awkward (Sweet Side, American Dream.) This was five years after her masterpiece “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” hit the shelves. The latter was the album being covered in it’s entirety this evening.
“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” was the the 1998 Nashville and Canoga Park CA. recorded album, with guest appearances by Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris, that moved Lucinda to the level of being taken seriously as a singer-songwriter heavyweight. The six year labor that produced lucid stories of Southern climes, love discovered and easily lost and the forlorn and wayward put her on the map as a sort of musical Flannery O’Connor.
Williams seems to be a living contradiction. She seems to mirror the very same schizophrenic and contradictory nature of the alt.country/folk/cow-punk etc. genre she is arguably the reining queen of, even she wasn’t sure which musical plane she currently occupies. “They say I’m country but more folk nowadays. Who knows?” She remarked later in the show.
Stopping in New York City to do a five-night retrospective, which seems to be in vogue as late with Sonic Youth on tour playing “Daydream Nation,” and Slint doing “Spiderland.” Each night featured a selection from her discography in reverse chronological order (omitting her recent release West,)
The crowd was ready be behold something special. Restless and rustling and smelling of booze and cologne this was the closest Times Square gets to a roadhouse.
As far as a country music analog, Lucinda is defiantly more Dolly than Loretta. Vulnerably childlike rather than grittily resilient.
Flanked by a top shelf band – Doug Pettibone rhythm/lead guitar, mandolin and pedal steel, David Sutton was on bass, Chet Lyster playing rhythm/lead guitar, pedal steel and keyboards, and Butch Norton There was also a guest appearance by Americana trailblazer Jim Lauderdale on guitar and backup vocals, Steve Earle (strolling over from his Greenwich Village home) was on guitar, harmonica, lead and backup vocals.
“I thought I’d talk a little bit more about the songs than I usually do, a little bonus.” Williams offered from the stage this night. As a treat for hard-core fans that know all the background on each song these were additional gems.
The first background story was when she recounted playing the song “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” at the legendary Bluebird Cafe with her dad, the poet Miller Williams, in the audience. The song of growing up poor in the South caused her father to approach her after the show and apologize. “I’m sorry.” “Why,” she said. “Because that’s you as the little girl in that song.” She admitted that until that moment she never realized it on a conscious level before.
The song “I Lost It” was inspired by an “I Found It” bumper sticker she saw everywhere while traveling in Houston in the 70’s. And like many of her songs “Lake Charles” was based on an ex-love.
Her gravel-in-velvet voice was in perfect for the event. Each syllable was nuanced and word was elevated to heady levels for all to witness.
The song “Joy” was a ferocious rocker that moved into Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” terrain when guitartists Doug Pettibone and Chet Lyster faced each other in a flurrying duel of solos. “Still I Long for Your Kiss” was said to be inspired by William’s love for 70’s R&B and “2 Kool 2 B 4-gotten”, a song written in a New Years Day hangover haze and inspired by two books of photography– Juke Joint: Photographs by Birney Imes and Appalachian Portraits by Shelby Lee Adams, floated and ached along at a beautiful pace.
My favorite song from the album “Concrete and Barbed Wire” was a nice, dusty twanged-out duet between Williams and Earle that they appeared to have a lot of fun doing.
At one moment Williams took the time to pint out Steve Earle’s contribution to the album’s production and how if he hadn’t grabbed the reins it might not have been made. In testament to his role in birthing this masterpiece Earle replied “It’s hard to fuck up great songs”. “Oh, I could find a way to fuck them up.” Williams answered.
After the album was covered there was a brief intermission and then the show was back on. A highlight was a duet with Steve Earle titled “Jail House Tears”. Steve Earle performed an a rousing version of “Ellis Unit One” a song from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack.
I’ve seen Lucinda in concert before and she readily reveals a thin-skin diva’s-temperament for critical feedback. She mentioned picking up the local entertainment rag Time Out New York that seemed to give her a less then favorable feature review. She confessed to the adoring crowd “listen I’m an artist not a performer” which then elicited the predictable “We Love you Lucinda!!!” A younger Lorretta would have ignored the ignorant Yankee that wrote the damning review, or would have told them to kiss her ass. Lucinda is more delicate then that, despite her gritty literary exterior.
Lucinda Williams – Honey Bee – Town Hall NYC, 10-3-07