Williams might be known mainly as a folk-country act, but she has assembled a band with the chops to take her material deep into rock, blues, psychedelic and more.
(Photo: Patti Heck)
Though she has not had the “hits” of some of her contemporaries in music and cannot sell out stadiums as they do, Lucinda Williams is, pound for pound, a songwriter to rival any currently living, with a back catalog of material that has rightly earned its status as “classic” and several songs up there with the best of the folk-country pantheon.
Her fans revere her, as was clear at Chicago’s Park West venue, where none other than the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, was present to join in both hushed adoration (during the first half of the show) and raucous revelry (during the second half).
On this tour, she is celebrating her Sweet Old World album, originally released in 1992. As the press release is quick to point out, however, this is no mere nostalgia tour. The songs are played out of order, some of the lyrics are altered and certain songs are rearranged altogether. Between songs, Williams told a few stories of where she was in her life at the time, what inspired them and what they mean to her now. But the show had none of the self-satisfaction of a VH1 Storytellers episode. Rather, it was suffused by the warmth and gratitude of a performer who lives for the song and considers herself the graced conduit for feelings and visions larger than herself. That she is the lucky one who gets to share these visions with a loving audience is hardly lost on her.
Of those Sweet Old World songs, the ones that stood were “Something About What Happens When We Talk,” a song that names a sentiment virtually everyone has felt, “Little Angel, Little Brother,” her beautiful and heartbreaking song about her brother (with whom she doesn’t have a relationship, she explained beforehand) and “Memphis Pearl,” a song she wrote after she saw a homeless woman rummaging through trash and tried to imagine a backstory for her.
All these songs were executed perfectly by her impressive band, made up of guitar player Stuart Mathis, who delivered scorching solos but also knew when to hold back on the more melancholic numbers, bassist David Sutton, who alternated between electric and stand-up, and Butch Norton, the drummer, who is perhaps best known as a former longtime member of Eels. Butch brought his Bonham-like chops to Williams’ songs, delivering solid backbeats, shuffles and thrilling fills.
In the second half, the songs became less subtle, perhaps, but allowed for the band to let it all out a bit more. They played a moving tribute to Tom Petty by covering his “Southern Accents,” and they filled out the set with classics like “Drunken Angel,” her older tune “Changed the Locks,” as well as newer ones and the well-known “Joy” from 1998’s breakout Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. She also performed a stirring new song, “We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Around,” a song you could imagine Joan Baez singing at a rally 50 years ago.
By the time the concert ended, the otherwise-mostly-seated audience was on its feet, the mayor included. Williams might be known mainly as a folk-country act, but she has assembled a band with the chops to take her material deep into rock, blues, psychedelic and more.
By the time the encore ended, the crowd had been treated to 23 songs. Not bad for a Wednesday night. Or any night, for that matter. As for Williams, as a writer and recording artist she is more productive than ever, and as a performer remains well worth the ticket. She certainly deserves to sell out stadiums but, selfishly, we’re lucky to get this good of a look at a legend.