Live albums have a tortuous history, serving all too often as mere tour souvenirs, stopgaps between studio works, or fulfillments of contractual obligations. It’s a rare live album that stands on its own as a complete and significant artistic statement.
Lucinda Williams’ first concert album, Live At The Fillmore, recorded over three nights at the venerable San Francisco venue, falls into the “tour souvenir” category. Perhaps it’s a stopgap, too, depending on how long Williams, a notorious perfectionist whose studio efforts are worth the wait, takes before releasing a new one. (Though, to be fair, she’s accelerated that process considerably in the last half decade).
Live At The Fillmore is a faithful re-creation of her most recent tour, which is fine. But that means the emphasis is placed squarely on her 2003 album World Without Tears. Fully half of the 22 songs on this two-disc set are drawn from World, and that’s just too many. Since the live arrangements don’t depart significantly from the studio versions, you’d do just as well to listen to the original.
Given Williams’ great back catalogue, she could have used the live album as more of a career retrospective. As it stands, there are seven songs from Essence, two from Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, and one each from Sweet Old World and her self-titled album. It’s good that she touches all of her post-Folkways albums, but a more balanced approach — or maybe even the inclusion of some previously unreleased material — would have been more satisfying.
That said, Williams and her band are in fine form throughout most of the set. Bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Jim Christie supply solid support, and there are a handful of nice showcases for guitarist/pedal steel player Doug Pettibone.
Williams’ voice has never been pretty, but its expressiveness allows her to convey, at various times, grit, vulnerability, sly sexiness and unspeakable sorrow. Here she shines on softer songs such as “Blue”, “Lonely Girls” and a particularly soulful “Bus To Baton Rouge”. But the live setting also accentuates her shortcomings, and when she toughens up her voice, as on “Atonement”, “Those Three Days” and “Real Live Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings”, she tends to bray. Her attempts at talking-blues-cum-countrified-rap (“Righteously”, Sweet Side”, “Joy”) can grate as well.
Still, there are plenty of great songs here, and the band is right on target. It’s hard not to like Live At The Fillmore for what it is, especially if you saw Williams in concert last year. But expectations being what they are for Williams’ work, it could have been so much more.