(Note to the Reader: For this installment of City Sound Inertia, we welcome guest reviewer Bob Meline! A finish carpenter by trade, longtime music fan, and secretly, a solid bass player, he’s also my dad—and one of the greatest guys I know.)
I’ll admit I haven’t been a hardcore Lucinda Williams fan. Her alt-country sound has been mildly attractive to me, enough that I own a few of her CDs, had at least listened to all of the others and had actually paid to see her in my own hometown 6 or 7 years ago. My interest was mostly due to a close female friend of mine who has had her share of ups and downs in life, and who for quite a while saw Lucinda’s music as the soundtrack to her own difficult journey on the planet. As such, I paid a bit more than average attention to Williams’ songwriting, and while some of it was very raw and direct and spot-on, some of it was almost annoying in its simplicity and repetitiveness. Her tendency to slur her vocals and deliver same in the occasional monotone didn’t grab me either.
Lucinda’s stage presence as a performer can be lacking—even borderline non-existent at times. The one previous time I’d seen her live was at the end of nearly a year of nonstop touring; the stage was about the last place she seemed to want to be that night. She did her best Van Morrison-esque impression, keeping her cowboy hat pulled low over her eyes and barely addressing the audience at all. And yes, alcohol may have been involved. Musically, it was a decent enough show, but not enough to turn me into a dedicated fan.
All that changed last Friday night. I had purchased a couple of tickets the day they went on sale (ninth row and reasonably priced, these days anyway, at $45.00) and had the aforementioned female friend/fan as my date. And even though I hadn’t been very impressed in two of Lucinda’s recent releases, West and Little Honey, I bought Blessed for a preview of what we’d be hearing. What struck me immediately with the album was the quality of the musicianship. Williams has the stature to have surrounded herself with some pretty good players through the years, but this just felt different somehow. With some real anticipation, I hoped it would translate to the live show.
When the 8 PM show still hadn’t started at 8:30 and the natives were getting restless enough to start rhythmically clapping, whistling and calling out Lucinda’s name, it was hard to remain upbeat. The house wasn’t full, and I tried to embrace the possibility that they were waiting for just a few more bodies to fill just a few more seats. She finally emerged with the three-piece band, mumbled, “Hello everybody,” and went straight into “Can’t Let Go.”
For the next hour and fifty minutes, the four musicians (Lucinda included) were simply brilliant. Props as well to the sound crew—this was one of the most crisp, clear and clean shows I have heard at the Wells Fargo Center in a long time. When you get that kind of sound right out of the gate, you can focus completely on what the performers are giving you. And what they gave to the night, interestingly enough, was more of a rock and roll feel, infusing a different kind of power and energy into the setlist than what I had expected.
Lucinda’s drummer, Butch Norton, immediately took charge. He was there. He converted his drums from a percussive device to an actual instrument, seemingly using every piece at every moment. At times, he inspired personal recollections of Animal from The Muppet Show band and the great Keith Moon. And though he was all over his kit, he was in complete control without overshadowing the rest of the band—loud and forceful in accentuating tunes like “Buttercup” and “I Changed The Locks,” and effortlessly holding up the quiet, introspective songs like “Born To Be Loved” and “Blessed,” both from the new album.
The other half of the rhythm section, David Sutton, was the perfect complement to Norton. While providing most of the backup vocal work, he alternated between a standup bass, a hollow body electric bass and a Fender Precision to provide a melodic bottom end that formed a real connection with Norton’s drum work. He ran the gamut from a hard rock sound to intricate fretwork to quiet single-note accentuations. He especially shone on “Get Right With God,” the encore’s closer.
Lead guitarist Blake Mills was simply amazing. He brought something different to each tune, from screaming, shredding leads to seamless slidework to finger picking staccato to light and buoyant accentuation of Williams’ vocals. He elevated music that was already brilliant to the level of stunning—every song would have made a highlight reel. A collection of guitars that I finally stopped counting covered most of the sound spectrum. At just 24, he plays well beyond his years.
Oh yeah, Lucinda. Sure, she still has those awkward-but-endearing moves onstage. And I’m not sure when this practice first started, but she now employs a music stand with a notebook that contains all the words to her songs at the ready, referring to it quite often. (C’mon, how many times prior to this show has she sung “Lake Charles” or “Pineola” or “Drunken Angel”?) But tonight, I’ll gladly give her that and whatever else she wants or needs to prop her up. Lucinda was in stellar form vocally. Her voice was strong and clear, she was both forceful and demure, she gave us pain and joy, she made us stop and think, she had us nodding our heads in common experience and deep feeling. She didn’t marble-mouth her lyrics, she didn’t fall into a lazy growl, she simply sang ever so beautifully in that slightly rough-around-the-edges Louisiana drawl which makes everything that comes out of her mouth so flat-out real. Again, the sound was brilliant, letting the audience easily fuse with the woman who has been included in the short list of the greatest songwriters of all time.
Tonight, for me, it all came together perfectly. No doubt I’m late to the party, but now I get Lucinda Williams. The strength and quality of her backing musicians (interestingly enough, all from California), the power of the real-life stories she crafts lyrically, the quality and emotion in her voice—it all felt so deeply, penetratingly real that it was almost scary someone could do it so well.
Tonight’s show was magic. I’m a fan.
(Previously by Bob Meline: Bonnie Raitt at Sonoma Jazz +)