Begin with a confession. Despite being a long time Lucinda fan and having her seen her numerous times, I walked into The Fitzgerald Theater Saturday for the first of two weekend performances, with a bit of trepidation. The first reason was simply the venue. The Fitz is wonderful. But, after all, it is a proscenium theater. Audiences tend to be a bit more reserved. I’d never seen her someplace where people were sitting down.
The second reason is a decidedly mixed attitude about touring a particular album after it’s gained enough years to be considered fully realized adult. The problem is there’s no, what’s next? A portion of the show has been scripted and the arrangements are nearly guaranteed to closely hew to the recorded versions. That wonderful phenomenon of a song maturing, of rearranging, is kind of off the table. There’s a tacit agreement up front with the ticket buyers of what they’re going to get. And if there are songs on the featured album which aren’t your cup of tea, well you just get to put up with them.
On a previous stop at the First Avenue stage, she used the same approach. However, in that case she was re-presenting the 1992 album Sweet Old World. Not one of my favorite from her body of work. In her own words, “the red headed stepchild”; the one that never got the attention it deserved.
Admittedly, rolling in with Car Wheels On a Gravel Road is an entirely different kettle of fish. That one is an acknowledged masterpiece. Grammy Awards, The Smithsonian, big sales. Rolling Stone listed it solidly in the top 500 albums ever done. So while it may not make it on your desert island list, it’s hard to deny that in the grand scheme of things its mix of blues, folk, country and rock, occupies an elite spot in the recording pantheon.
My review of the Car Wheels tour is a bit of a mixed bag. I truly wish I could say it blew me away. Because I love the album and love the artist. There isn’t a single track I don’t like. And Lucinda’s presentation, along with her tried and true touring band, Buick 6 was solid. But I felt as though the band had decided to pick up some old songs and see if they could cover them. Some of the songs seemed a bit rough around the edges. Tentative at times; a bit like the band had, in fact, dusted off some old songs. The fire to make them shine seemed lacking. Maybe that’s just me. The audience continued to pour forth their adoration.
At the same time, this was a very different approach to a Lucinda Williams show and the format worked brilliantly. She took the time to talk in detail about the characters, the life events, that were the genesis of each of the songs. As somebody who loves the opportunity to climb into a songwriter’s mind, it was a wonderful glimpse of a woman who through all the ups and downs has always been a truly honest artist.
Additionally, each of the songs was accompanied by a vintage film collage. There was a young Lucinda, loading the family station wagon, playing her first open stages, hitting the road in a VW van and finally, looking the part of the sultry chanteuse who had the world by the balls. Behind many of the songs were the original lyric scratchings. The crossed out phrases, the added words. History laid bare.
The audience loved the intimacy. It’s not something Williams is generally real good at. But as she admitted at one point: “What the hell, it’s not like I’ve got anything to hide anymore!”. It was a wonderful way to present the music.
On the penultimate song of the album, she finally picked up her silver Telecaster and they lit into Joy. The ground shifted and the band caught fire. It occurred to me that it wasn’t that this was somehow a better song than others. It was simply because the song is the one from the album that has stayed in regular rotation ever since. So the band of Stuart Mathis on lead, David Sutton on bass and Butch Norton on drums were squarely in their own world. In many respects, this was the first authentic Buick 6 song and it really rocked. That song set the remainder of the set soaring.
It was also the first Williams composition that dropped into a heavy groove with an insistent repeating lyric. A formula which she’s continued to use effectively on subsequent albums over the past 20 years.
I found myself pondering her relationship to The Road. There’s the obvious nod in the title. Many of the songs are literally about traveling those back roads. Driving between Houston and New Orleans with songs like St Charles. In other songs, the road may not be pavement (or gravel). Instead it’s a metaphorical road. Roads to occasional redemption. Roads more often to destruction, like in Drunken Angel.
Her very voice has been described so often as road worn, or road weary, that it’s become almost a cliche’. Like Dylan, Neal Young or Patti Smith, it isn’t that she owns a great voice. What they have in common is the rare gift of being able to write a piece of poetry, close to the bone and to interpret and deliver it in a way that connects. I think of her voice as cried out, plaintive. At the same time there’s this spirit that will never give it up. That can still become angry and assertive when backed into a corner.
It’s this combination of being an other worldly songwriter (Time magazine decided back in 2002 that she was America’s greatest songwriter) and the ability to deliver those songs, that makes it work. She can deliver them because it’s the truth. She has always written about her life and the people in it. She describes her songs as literal.
That takes a great deal of courage, particularly when the telling doesn’t always shine a flattering light on the time or the people. Williams is this wonderful mix of flinty, outspoken, road worn patience and wisdom alongside this unfeigned vulnerability. It was interesting to hear her use phrases like shy or embarrassed when describing what created a song. Perhaps it’s this complexity which helps us relate. She’s human, just like the rest of us.
At the conclusion of Car Wheels, Williams returned to the stage with just an acoustic guitar and introduced The Ghosts of Highway 20, title track to the brilliant and dusty 2015 double album. She pointed out how the song was, in many respects, the natural complement to the former song. It was about roads traveled, people and places along the way. The only difference being that in the Car Wheels she was the 5 year old sitting in the back seat looking out a the world. Highway 20, she was driving the car back through her history.
She followed with a chugging version of Come On and then a stinging rebuke of the current polarization in our country in Foolishness. Lucinda at her angry best. Like Joy, each of these songs were obviously part of the band’s regular repertoire and they smoked them. They walked off to an enthusiastic standing ovation.
The three song encore was a simple cruise down the blues highway. She opened in a duet with Stuart Mathis, covering Memphis Minnie’s Ramblin’. She credited Minnie as a huge influence because she was the only female of the delta scene, who could also write her own tunes and play the guitar. “She could hold her own. She was a bad ass!”. One look no further than Led Zepplin’s classic cover of her iconic When The Levee Breaks.
Ramblin‘ was followed by an a Capella, clapping gospel blues Faith & Grace. The show closed to another rousing ovation with Get Right With God from the critically acclaimed Essence. That song won her a third Grammy as Best Rock Performance by Female Artist. It seemed fitting. As one looks at the arc of Williams’ career, its ups and downs, addiction and recoveries, maybe that’s what left. Finding some peace and stability to be able to reflect on the past without being dragged down by it. Finding the peace to take what comes and live it one day at a time.
The Lucinda Williams travelogue runs from Austin to Nashville. With stops all along the blues highway and in each and every Texas juke joint. It’s by definition Americana. And no female artist has contributed more to the genre than Lucinda Williams. The miles beneath those Car Wheels have rolled by uncounted. She’ll never settle. It’s in her blood. She’ll stay close to the source, racking up the miles. There will be many more before she hands off the keys for the last time.