Lucinda Williams threw herself a big old party the beginning of September in her on-again-off-again-on-again home of Los Angeles. Over the course of six nights, she did five shows, devoting each one to performing a specific studio album in the first set, followed by a mix of songs in the second set. (She repeated the run in New York City a couple weeks later.)
Williams concluded the Los Angeles series by revisiting the record that really started it all: her 1988 self-titled album. Although she had made two earlier LPs for Smithsonian/Folkways, this was the one really put her on the radar, the one that sparked her cult fandom and attracted the attention of her fellow musicians. It seemed as if every other song intro included a thank-you to some performer who had covered the song: Emmylou Harris for “Crescent City”, Tom Petty for “Changed The Locks”, Linda Thompson for “Abandoned”, Mary Chapin Carpenter for “Passionate Kisses”.
The songs still hold up phenomenally well after nearly two decades. Few songwriters have conveyed desire’s emotional toll better than Williams did on this disc, from the lover’s yearning plea of “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad” to the scarred-heart lament “Price To Pay”.
What has changed over the course of time is Lucinda Williams the performer. I saw her deliver this same material in 1988 to a half-filled room in the back of the storied Santa Monica guitar shop McCabe’s. Besides her brilliant songs, what I also remember was Williams’ awkward stage presence; she seemed like a nervous, moonlighting checkout clerk.
While still not the most suave performer, Williams is far more comfortable onstage now. She joked easily with the audience, remarking after one of her frequent false starts: “I’m such a fucking obsessive-compulsive perfectionist.”
The other significant difference was her singing. While the multi-night residency obviously wore down her typically ragged voice, she attacked these songs with a ferocity she didn’t display on the original recordings. On “Changed The Locks”, for example, she sang with a crackling growl that suggested she wasn’t one to mess with.
Adding a spark to the occasion were the nightly special guests. Sitting in during the opening set on this night were Jim Lauderdale (who sang on the self-titled album) and pedal steel whiz Greg Leisz. Although Emmylou Harris didn’t hop out to sing on “Crescent City”, she did join Williams during the second set. After re-creating her harmonizing on the Car Wheels On A Gravel Road track “Greenville”, Harris performed her self-penned “Red Dirt Girl”, crediting Williams as being a songwriter who inspired her to write her own songs. X’s John Doe dueted with Williams on her darkly comic “Jailhouse Tears” and later ripped through fierce versions of “The New World” and “Wrecking Ball” that had the enamored Williams dancing with joy.
Early on during the second set, Williams commented how she felt a “renewed vigor” following the intermission. This sentiment characterized not only the entire show but also her entire personality. Now in her mid-50s, Williams radiates a youthful spiritedness. Only the weeknight 12:30 a.m. curfew stopped the show, which concluded on a suitably celebratory fashion with everyone helping out on a rockin’, tribal-sounding rendition of “Get Right With God”.