Thursday, December 03, 2009

Concert Review: Lucinda Williams

The Pageant, St. Louis, MO 10/17/09

It took exactly one song for the intoxicated requests to start. After Lucinda Williams opened her St. Louis concert with a soulfully garbled solo acoustic take of "Motherless Children," a rather forceful demand for "Drunken Angel" was shouted from the pit area. Other requests punctuated the breaks between songs throughout Williams' mesmerizing two and half hour performance at the Pageant - "Lake Charles," "Joy," "Are You Alright?" (a glutton for punishment, there) - and even if such things are standard and expected for a Williams show, it still doesn't make them any less annoying or unnecessary.

Perhaps such fans were unaware of the approach Williams and her expert backing band (a Doug Pettibone-less Buick 6) have taken on their current tour. Featuring a chronologically arranged setlist, these shows have the feel of a career retrospective, with Williams digging into her back catalog for songs that have been in her repertoire for years as well as a few rarities. If the crowd's expectations and what Williams had planned didn't always jive - especially in the concert's mostly down-tempo first hour, it was clear that more than a few fidgety and vocal concertgoers were expecting a full-on rock concert - the show was nevertheless memorable, with the singer turning in her most assured and confident performance in St. Louis since her 2003 stop at the same venue.

Although any such chronological format runs the risk of disintegrating into a mere nostalgia trip or Kumbaya community sing-along, there were enough surprises in song selection and wrinkles in the arrangements to keep things interesting. The first hour or so emphasized the musician's folk and blues roots: Williams' Folkways years were represented by the aforementioned opener, Robert Johnson's "Rambling On My Mind" and "Happy Woman Blues," while her self-titled Rough Trade debut was revisited with a pitch-perfect full-band version of "Crescent City," a country-inflected "Big Red Sun Blues" and a stripped down take on "Side of the Road." Only a scant two songs from the underappreciated Sweet Old World were offered, neither of which were particularly inspired; if there's an additional complaint here, it's that both songs - "Little Angel, Little Brother" and "Pineola" - were again performed with little deviation from their album versions and have grown a little stale.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most generous selection of songs came from Williams' three best albums:Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Essence and, despite the occasional dud, World Without Tears. Weeper ballads like "Greenville," "Lake Charles" and "Blue" were intermixed with the muscular, aggressive blasts the band applied to "I Lost It," "Out of Touch" and "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings." Guitarists Chet Lyster and Eric Schermerhorn and bassist David Sutton played masterfully across the board, while goateed monster drummer Butch Norton was particularly savage, pounding away at his drum kit as if he'd just discovered that it slept with his woman.

The main set somewhat limped to the finish. Recent songs "Unsuffer Me" and "Tears of Joy" sounded as lifeless in concert as they do on record, with both lazy blues crawlers standing in sharp contrast to the mocking and nasty tones the band applied to the vitriolic "Come On" and set-closing "Honey Bee." Still, such missteps were rare, and, after a three-song encore, the curtain closed on a fitting end to the band's tour and one of Williams' most engaging and least predictable St. Louis concerts.

With only a few exceptions, the performance itself was almost always flawless, with both Williams and her superb backing band breathing passion and energy into both the reliable standbys and lost gems from her back catalog. Though Williams' standing as a critics' darling has taken a hit with the dual disappointments of West and Little Honey, she still knows how to translate her songs to a live setting and there is a power to her ragged voice live that isn't always captured on record. If this chronological show confirmed anything, it's that most of Lucinda Williams' songs have aged well and rightly continue to find an audience based on the strength of their content and the often wrenching and conflicted emotions they express.

by Eric Dennis
[Photos: Lindsey Best]

1. Motherless Children
2. Rambling On My Mind (Robert Johnson)
3. Happy Woman Blues
4. Crescent City
5. Big Red Sun Blues
6. Side of the Road
7. Little Angel, Little Brother
8. Pineola
9. Greenville
10. I Lost It
11. Lake Charles
12. Still I Long for Your Kiss
13. Blue
14. Out of Touch
15. Essence
16. Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings
17. Righteously
18. Unsuffer Me
19. Come On
20. Tears of Joy
21. Honey Bee

22. Nothing in Rambling (Memphis Minnie)
23. Joy
24. It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock n' Roll)

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