Concert Review: Lucinda Williams Makes Emotionally Wrenching Return

Photo by Danny Clinch

It is rare indeed that a concert’s most transcendent moment—its most visceral connection between spectator and performer—occurs during a song that almost no one in the audience has heard before, and which the singer has only performed a handful of times.

Such was the power of “Good Souls,” a soul-bearing, slow-burning eschatological masterpiece from Lucinda Williams’ forthcoming 13th studio album, Good Souls Better Angels. It was performance that seemed to originate, to paraphrase the title of another of her albums, where her spirit meets her bone. Watching Williams desperately plead its lyrics about the need for her better angels to override her demons, it was easy to get drawn into its secular, communal exorcism. She wiped away tears when it ended, as the set’s penultimate song, after nearly two hours of material heavy with similarly wrenching cuts.

“This was very special,” she said, after sending us off with fan-favorite “Righteously.” “You let me laugh, you let me cry, you let me be myself.”

We were right there with her. I heard sniffles from a fellow audience member after the poignant “Lake Charles;” I could barely hold it together after “Side of the Road.” Williams was correct to single out this performance, her fourth of six Florida shows surrounding her recent Outlaw Country Cruise, as special. I’ve seen her three other times at Parker Playhouse, and while some may have been more technically flawless, none approached last night’s exchange of emotional currency.

Williams is a performer who does not shy away from candor and vulnerability, in concert as well as in her songwriting. Each time I’ve seen her, she’s had to visibly overcome her nerves during the first couple of numbers, in which she glances at what appears to be lyric sheets for songs she surely knows by heart and by muscle memory. Her vocal cords have started show signs of nearly 30 years of wear and tear; they cracked a couple of times during the high notes of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”—still a welcome surprise given its absence from recent set lists—and “Fruits of My Labor.”

But what she may have lost, perhaps, in range, her voice has gained in grit, and consequently her early songs, with their crystalline recorded vocals, have taken on new layers of remembrance, of hurt, of defiance; their nostalgia has a fresh ache. It doesn’t hurt that her backing band Buick 6 added their own instrumental imagination to otherwise familiar songs. The balladic “Steal Your Love” was virtually unrecognizable at first, thanks to guitarist Stuart Mathis’ driving, Police-style chords and swooning effects pedals. His surf/psych solo during “Lake Charles” made for a delightful, enriching asset to a mostly barebones track.

“Side of the Road” became a bucolic, lazy amble that sonically encapsulated the textures of Williams’ lyrics, while the band’s work on the audience request “Unsuffer Me” was as heavy and molten enough for a Zeppelin album. I’ve seen Buick 6 back Williams before, but this has been the first show in which the band and the marquee name seemed to share equal creative weight.

The show was not all tears and melancholy. Williams studded her crowd banter with light asides, amusing observations and reflections on the music that has inspired her, whether it’s the cowpunk of Lonesome Strangers or the scuzzy garage-rock of the Seeds, while noting the blues foundation of the latter: “If it ain’t blues-based, it ain’t shit,” she said.

And it wouldn’t have been a Lucinda Williams show without a spell of well-timed righteous anger, which arrived in the cathartic form of “Man Without a Soul,” the lead single from Good Souls Better Angels. While the subject of the track is never named, one needn’t look far from the news cycle to figure it out, with lyrics like “You bring nothing good to this world, beyond a web of cheating and stealing/you hide behind your wall of lies, but it’s coming down/yeah, it’s coming down.” This was catnip to her liberal fan base, despite—or perhaps because—of this week’s evidence to the contrary.

But Williams is nothing if not hopeful that America, as much as her self, will acquiesce to its better angels. And if not, we have her music to get us through it.

SET LIST

Steal Your Love

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Can’t Let Go

Buttercup

Lake Charles

Fruits of My Labor

Ghosts of Highway 20

Side of the Road

Man Without a Soul

Are You Down?

You Can’t Rule Me (maybe the title—new song)

West Memphis

Unsuffer Me

Essence

Foolishness

Joy

ENCORE

Good Souls

Righteously