Lucinda Williams: raw and powerful, bruised and broken

Lucinda and Doug

Lucinda Williams, Royal Festival Hall, London, November 11 2012:

As one of her final numbers thundered to a climax, Lucinda Williams turned round and gazed in admiration at the light show bathing her band in a mirror-ball glow.

“I love these lights,” she said after the final drum roll. “Makes me feel like a real rock star…”

“You are!” yelled a voice from the back.

“Yeah, tell that to the radio,” the star shot back.

And therein lies her dilemma. Even though Lucinda Williams is filed under country by the music industry, what she actually plays is beyond classification. It’s country, it’s folk, it’s rock, it’s soul, it’s blues. If you had to pick just one category it’s the blues. Raw and powerful blues with a sensationally good band.

Back home in the USA, despite three Grammy awards and the accolade of “America’s Best Songwriter” from Time Magazine in 2002,  she barely gets played on any kind of radio.

Just to confuse things even more, this particular gig – the second of two nights at the Royal Festival Hall – was part of the three-month-long London Jazz Festival.

Personally, I don’t care if they put Lucinda Williams on at the Royal Opera House or Wilton’s Music Hall. Anything that brings her to this side of the Atlantic is fine by me.

Lucinda with the band

Sunday’s show, featuring a different set from Saturday in all but two songs, started with just the singer and her acoustic guitar. Her three-piece band came on one-by-one over the course of the first six numbers.

First Doug Pettibone, a guitarist’s guitarist if ever there was one. Then Dave Sutton, initially on stand-up bass then switching to prowling electric after drummer Butch Norton came out to kick things up a gear.

What they played went as far back as Crescent City from her 1988 self-titled album on Rough Trade, which prompted reminiscences of how the UK indie label had rescued her career. Everything else was post 1998, when her breakthrough album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road made the world sit up and listen.

Powerful songs like Copenhagen and Seeing Black from last year’s release, Blessed, proved just as powerful as older favourites such as Drunken Angel and Out Of Touch. She also covered an early Allman Brothers track, Not My Cross To Bear (“One of our greatest influences,” she said). Two new numbers, Stowaway and Protection, seemed to indicated a funky new direction with a serious nod to James Brown.

“I got a whole bunch of new songs,” she said, then going on to lament the assumption that because she’s now happily married to her manager Tom Overby, she won’t be able to write any more tales of heartbreak and despair.

“Nobody’s happy ALL the time,” she protested. “Believe me, I can still be miserable!”

Dave, Butch and Lucinda

Many of the old songs were played in subtly different new arrangements, though not so extreme as Bob Dylan’s habit of making his hits unrecognisable. My only slight disappointment of the evening was that a new latin rhythm on the slow and soulful Are You Down dispensed with the original’s urgent change of pace at the end, a thrilling moment that makes my hair stand up every time I hear it on record.

Seeing Lucinda live for the fourth time, what struck me most of all is the control, precision and power of her singing. Her voice can sound bruised and broken – and sometimes the cracks are all people notice when they hear her for the first time – but it’s a finely-honed instrument and she plays it to perfection. The same is true, incidentally, of both Tom Waits and Marianne Faithfull, whose pipes have a similar battered grandeur.

Lucinda stopped to say how much she admired Adele, and admitted that the new song Protection had been inspired by seeing one of the Brit singer’s co-writers play a show (she couldn’t remember his name, but it was probably Dan Wilson, co-author and producer of Someone Like You).

The sound at the Royal Festival Hall was magnificent – clear as a bell but warm and involving too. The audience was perhaps a little more hushed and respectful than she’s used to, but she won a standing ovation after going off stage following the hard rock double-whammy of Righteously and Honey Bee.

Back out for three-and-a-half encores, she played Essence, the passionate title track from her 2001 album, as a request for the great Ray Davies, who was somewhere in the hall to hear it, she said. Great choice, Ray.

Then she and band launched into a cover of Salt Of The Earth from the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet album, only for her to call a halt two verses in, apologising but saying she’d changed her mind.

“I don’t want to play this. Frankly, it’s not one of their best songs,” she said.

Hmm… I have to disagree there, and maybe Tom Overby does to, because she turned to her husband in the wings and said: “Are you gonna be mad at me now, Tom?”

After a blistering version of Seeing Black (written about the suicide of musican friend Vic Chesnutt) Lucinda closed with show Get Right With God, featuring a spine-chilling new call-and-response arrangement in the chorus.

And that concluded a weekend when Lucinda Williams and her band played nearly four hours of the best live music you’ll hear anywhere in the world. I couldn’t get out of work or I’d have gone to the Saturday show too, and that’s going to be an everlasting regret. Come back soon, Lucinda..