Some critics think marriage has softened the jagged edges that defined Lucinda Williams’ songwriting and performing.
They say that Williams’ trademark angst, anger, and pain gave way to the boring happiness of a healthy and stable relationship when she married her longtime manager Tom Overby in 2006. They panned her latest release, Blessed, as sappy and lacking in grit, and wondered if her newfound happiness had stripped away her ability to find that tortured inner compartment she had used for so long to harvest material from.
It’s kind of the same argument that some have applied to Jeff Tweedy and his band, Wilco. After years of battling his demons, including a long stint addicted to painkillers, Tweedy finally got clean and proceeded to release several albums that simply didn’t match Wilco’s releases during the drug years. During a performance in the summer of 2003, a pale and sweaty Jeff Tweedy asked the audience, "Is everyone high out there?"
The crowd roared.
"Well… I’m not," Tweedy stated bitterly.
"Tweedy needs to get back on the drugs," many people said.
While Lucinda Williams’ latest release certainly includes material that some would view as more optimistic, Friday’s Liberty Hall show displayed plenty of the piss and vinegar that fans of the iconic singer/songwriter have grown to love.
"The human race is so disappointing at times," said Williams between songs. She was dressed in a black leather jacket, blue jeans with a big, shiny buckle, and sporting a wild, washed out blonde mop of hair. She looked tired, yet comfortable.
"But don’t worry, I’ll make sure you get your money’s worth," she reassured the 2/3 full Liberty Hall audience, composed mostly of 50-somethings. "This next one here is a new song, it isn’t even recorded yet."
Her band launched into Stowaway in Your Heart, a song they’ve been playing at most all of their recent shows. Williams’ voice was distinct and clear, reinforced with an intangible power that sounded like it required much more effort than what it looked like she was exerting.
It’s the kind of voice that can make ordering a cup of coffee sound interesting.
Also notable was the nimble and very tasteful guitar playing of Blake Mills, who served as the opening act as well. Though Williams’ band consisted of just herself, a bass player, drummer, and Mills on guitar, he was able to fill up all the space without overdoing it.
His subtle finger picking style created a nice texture that couldn’t have been achieved as effectively had he used a pick. Particularly impressive was his work with a slide, as he would alternate between bending in and out of chords, and then switching over to a straight finger picking style, with a honky tonk feel.
Even with Williams’ famous voice and presence, Mills came close to stealing the show.
About halfway through the set, the band really picked up some momentum with a cover of Bob Dylan’s Tryin’ To Get To Heaven that featured an extended guitar and drum jam outro. With a bit of added energy, they rolled through Those Three Days, Real Live Bleeding Fingers, and one of the highlights of the night, Changed the Locks.
For their encore, Williams and her band played the title track of the new record, Blessed, a rockin’ cover of the Allman Brothers classic, It’s Not My Cross To Bear, and finally, the Neil Young anthem, Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.
Though Mr. Young famously said that it’s better to burn out than fade away, Lucinda Williams is somewhere in between at this point in her career, and she seems to be just fine with that.