Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Concert Review: Lucinda Williams - St. Louis, MO - July 15, 2007

Lucinda Williams is an artist about whom it is practically impossible to write anything new or insightful. Like Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, and Tom Waits. And Kevin Federline. Reviews and opinions about the singer inevitably devolve into utterly predictable comments about Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, its blend of country-folk-rock, and the image of Williams as some sort of Southern musical cross between Dylan and Flannery O’Connor.Williams seems aware of this as well. The singer has essentially ignored that album on her current tour, while the actual live interpretations of her other songs have obliterated their country music twangs in favor of a barrage of electric guitars and pounding drums. Relying heavily on songs from her latest album West, Williams at least deserves credit for her willingness to challenge audience expectations by refusing to play an endless repeat of Car Wheels Redux Live, even with the risk of alienating fans whose perception of Williams is stuck somewhere in 1998.

The problem is that West departs from Williams’ previous works in that, well, it’s pretty lousy, too much of it tedious and repetitive, with an overly-produced sheen applied throughout. These problems that plague much of the album translated to the stage and resulted in an uneven, if occasionally outstanding, live performance Sunday night in St. Louis. Playing the Pageant for the third time since 2003, Williams and her latest band – bassist Hall Sutton, guitarist Doug Pettibone, and drummer/super badass-with-goatee Butch Norton, made it clear just a few songs in that the show would not be an alt-country affair. The show got off to a hesitant, uninspiring start with “Rescue,” one of the more plodding tracks from West. Maybe it’s just the repetitive lyrics and instrumentation, but both the band and audience seemed bored with the song. That sense of boredom with the West material continued for the various other West songs that were performed, at least judging by the frequent crowd conversations that were audible as the band worked through the new material. Introducing each new song with the comment that it was from the new album, it was difficult to determine whether Williams intended this as a proper introduction or a warning.

The notable exception was “Come On,” one of the more vicious songs Williams has recorded; in concert, the performance dripped with pure venom directed at some poor schmuck of a man with uh, certain performance inadequacies. In fact, the band’s best moments occurred when they set aside the West material and bashed out older songs at top volume. “Real Live Bleeding Fingers,” “Those Three Days,” and “Righteously” were all given rock-thrash treatments that made the album versions seem harmless and tame. In concert, the songs came across as swirls of noise, propelled by Butch Norton’s violent drumming, with the themes of sexual frustration and revenge made more apparent by the aggressive arrangements. If Williams is attempting to dispel the image of her as some sort alt-country founding mother – “Still I Long for Your Kiss&rdquo and “Joy; were the only Car Wheels songs performed – the song selection went a long way toward accomplishing that. “Cooch rock,” as my wife described it.Although she has a dedicated fan base that will continue to buy her albums and see her performances regardless of the musical direction she chooses, Lucinda Williams is not relying on past glories by serving up a stale rehash of her most well known, and best, album. This refusal to take the easy route is commendable. However, in a live setting, as seen this past Sunday in St. Louis, this can result in a hit-and-miss show. While this show wasn’t one of the best ones I’ve seen, or even as good as Williams’ two previous performances at the Pageant, the reworked full-steam-ahead arrangements of the older songs showed Williams won’t allow herself to be defined by the alt-country label. And that in itself is worth the occasional boring live performance or underwhelming new album.

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