Lucinda Williams. Bluebird Theater. 04.12.16
Seeing Lucinda Williams’ name lit up on the marquee at the Bluebird Theater was something special, but being in such close proximity to the living legend while she performed one of my all-time favorite songs was something else altogether. Quoted as saying she’d rather “play a few nights at the Fillmore than play one night at an arena,” the songwriter responsible for introducing me to another side of country music rarely finds herself in a venue as intimate as the Bluebird these days. She was right at home on that small stage though. Surrounded by her band, Buick 6, Williams took the opportunity to showcase material from the two albums she’s recently released on her new Highway 20 Records label, as well as choice tracks from across her illustrious 40-year career.
Buick 6 opened things up with their own set before joining Williams for the main event. Dressed all in black, with her boots, blonde disheveled hair, and heavy eye make-up, the woman we all came to see fit the part almost too perfectly. Many of her songs are autobiographical, so it makes sense that she would be the personification of her own words, but standing close enough to read the stories in the lines across her face was almost like being in the presence of a character; a character who just happened to step out of the pages of the songbook she kept next to her throughout the set.
“I Just Wanted to See You So Bad”, the first track off the self-titled album from 1988, introduced Lucinda Williams to one of the most ‘mature’ audiences the Bluebird Theater has seen in quite some time. As that song gave way to “Protection”, “Metal Firecracker”, and “West Memphis”, I have to admit I was a little worried about the direction the show was taking. Like a slow fuse, there were small sparks coming from the band, but they were always extinguished by a Quaalude-like heaviness that threatened to suffocate the crowd. Everything seemed to be moving in slow-motion as the muffled sound barely made it past the front rows. Fortunately, after a quick technical conference, the wet barbiturate blanket was lifted and everyone in the venue seemed to come to back to life. The band was the first to kick it into gear (almost overtaking Williams) during “Those Three Days”, but by the time she got around to “Can’t Close the Door on Love”, her voice was powerful enough to heard all the way down Colfax.
The Ghosts of Highway 20 was introduced as a companion piece to her breakthrough album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Both albums were inspired by the same two-lane highway, and the towns along its route where her brother and sister were born, but while Car Wheels was written from the perspective of a “little girl looking out the back window with tears and a little bit of dirt in her eyes,” Ghosts was written from the viewpoint of grown woman, “rounding the corner, looking back.” That sentiment should be familiar to anyone who grew up in a small town, but very few describe it as poetically as Williams does in those songs. Pictures of my own hometown flashed in my mind as she sang about hers; railroad tracks, pick-up trucks, oak trees, youth…
Williams shared a few other anecdotes with the crowd, mostly about her father’s Alzheimer’s and how she is paying tribute to the man by putting some of his poetry to song, but the show was mostly about the music. Her stage presence was slightly unremarkable. She’d switch up acoustic and electric guitars depending on what was required. She’d dance a little when the moment took her, but mostly relied on her fully capable band to animate the stage. She also never ventured too far from her songbook. I’m not sure why that crutch was needed, but I did find it distracting. She was looking down at her lyrics as often as she was looking at her audience.
Lucinda Williams, the person, doesn’t have a huge personality on stage, but her songs carry enough personality to fill a room. It was through those songs that we got our fill at the Bluebird last night. And what an amazing selection of songs it was. The fact that the main set included my favorite track from my favorite album (“Those Three Days” from World Without Tears), as well as “Fruits of My Labor” and some unexpected cuts from Car Wheels, was enough to make my night. When she returned for the encore with a couple amazing covers (especially The Allman Brother’s “Its’ Not My Cross to Bear”, which might have been the most uplifting song of the evening), it made be forget all about the slow start. Lucinda Williams has hundreds of original songs at her disposal though, so it would have been a shame to end things with a cover. That shame turned to “Joy” when she devastated the place with the stand-out track from Car Wheels. After completing the task at hand, she thanked the crowd and walked off stage as the house lights came up. When I left the venue, I noticed her name was still up in lights and I was just a little envious of those who were coming back for the second show.
I Just Wanted to See You So Bad
Those Three Days
Can’t Close the Door on Love
The Ghost of Highway 20
Fruits of My Labor
If My Love Could Kill
Are You Down
Out of Touch
Stop Breakin’ Down
It’s Not My Cross to Bear