According to social media posts from those who have seen Lucinda Williams’ current shows, she and her band are on top form. Here at AUK we’ve been lucky enough to have had reporters at two of her gigs (London and Glasgow) and, to mark her triumph and to celebrate her 70th birthday (which was yesterday), we are running both of them. Here’s the London show. Glasgow’s Celtic Connections review will follow on Monday.
A freezing London night gave way to the warmth of The Barbican Main Hall for what would be a gig very much of two halves. Lucinda Williams is a trooper, that much was apparent from the moment she took the stage. Preceded by her band Buick 6, Williams (who had a stroke in 2020) was carefully guided on stage and was clearly still having trouble with her steps. As she reached the microphone she launched immediately into ‘Can’t Let Go‘, the only non-self-penned song from ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road‘. It’s a good indication of how much of the evening will go with Williams’ singing both gravelly and digging deep into her blues side. It’s also a fitting declaration that Williams is definitively not finished yet. It’s hard not to hear her sing limes such as “I’m broken down like a train wreck” or “You don’t like to see me standing around / Feel Like I’ve been shot and fall down” coupled with “Well it’s over, I know it but I can’t let go” as a metaphorical middle finger to giving up. Not this gal. And the straight launched into ‘Protection‘, an angry growling electric-blues, offered the same feeling of refusal to be bowed by illness – “My burden is lifted when I stand up / And use the gift I was given for not giving up / I need protection from the enemy of love / I need protection from the enemy of rock and roll.” On these, as throughout the night, Buick 6 took a key role either playing the song out with extended codas or injecting a long hot bridge as a prelude to the final verse.
Third song in, the new ‘Stolen Moments’ introduced a partial theme for the evening as this was written, we’re informed, shortly after Tom Petty’s untimely death. It’s a straight forward rock song which has a few Petty touches to it that recounts those strange feelings that a departed person is still there, about to walk in the room or appear around the corner. These are the stolen moments. There were other songs about other lost ones – ‘Lake Charles‘ inspired by Williams’ friend Clyde Joseph Woodward III, and ‘Copenhagen‘ which recounts her shocked feelings of being in a strange place having just been informed by ‘phone that her manager at the time was dead. These songs tend to a slower pace, still ripped through with emotion by Williams’ vocal and given a restrained musical support from Buick 6. As ‘Copenhagen‘ came to a close, drummer Butch Norton got ever quieter until he finished the song beating the drumheads with the flat of his hands, a magical moment.
This song choice did lead to an apology about the number of death inspired or related songs, but as Williams explained it’s “cathartic” for her to write about the people that are gone from her life. As the gig progressed the between song explanations and anecdotal asides increased – after ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road‘ Williams explained that it was about herself, something she didn’t understand until her father pointed this out to her and apologised for letting her be the girl in the car’s backseat, face streaked with dirt and tears. There’s an appropriately deathly silence in response to this revelation, as the seated audience thoughtfully absorbed the information, which prompted Williams to growl “I thought you might be interested to know that – but maybe not.” Just taking it in, just taking it in.
In previous days such a gig might have had an interval split, with perhaps a suggestion that “we’ll be rocking harder in the second half“. Well, no interval but the rocking harder truly arrived with the joyful ‘Let’s Get The Band Back Together‘, full of optimistic nostalgia and a promise that the future isn’t over just yet. The Memphis Minnie inspired ‘You Can’t Rule Me‘ was presented as a hard slap in the face to the US Supreme Court – tax me and take my rights away? No, man, that is not going to stand for long. ‘Essence‘ kept the volume up whilst taking a detour into love as addiction – or just plain addiction as addiction – on a visceral description of love as a drug, or maybe a drug as love – “shoot your love into my veins” Williams roared, and then, “come find me and help me get fucked up.” Whatever’s going on, it’s clear that this is not healthy. There’s some freak flag waving on ‘Pray The Devil Back Into Hell‘ with Buick 6 (drums Butch Norton, bass David Sutton, guitar Stuart Mathis and guitar/pedal steel Doug Pettibone) taking full opportunity to take an excursion into a rock fuelled psychedelic space. It’s the best these five people on stage can be – delivering what feels like wild hippy protest music, all that’s missing is the dedication to the recently departed Crosby.
It had been by any measure a long gig – already overrunning its predicted end time by a good half an hour – when the band left the stage followed, to endless appreciation, slowly by Williams herself. Surely this was it, lights up and go? Not a bit of it, following a fairly long huddled discussion by the doors to backstage, incredibly the band returned to the stage to play as Williams came all the way back up the steps again and to the microphone once more. A traditionally staged encore – that’s really above and beyond. Another quarter of an hour or so saw a cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Blue Eyes‘ played in memory of Jeff Beck, a powerhouse ‘Joy‘ which was a holler of a song with the subject of reclaiming your life and dumping someone who’s useless to you surely now carrying an additional meaning for Williams. A lengthy finale of ‘Rockin’ In The Free World‘, with Buick 6 aiming to out horse The Horse, stabbed its accusations out into an auditorium in which, at last, seats were abandoned and, yes, fists were pumped into the air in a gleeful abandon that Lucinda Williams clearly appreciated. The sun hasn’t set on this girl yet.
The evening had been rounded out with an opening set by L.A. Edwards, a five piece rock band who veered between styles but sitting mostly in a classic rock mould with a side injection of indie rock styles. Originally the solo moniker for the lead singer – Luke Andrew Edwards – L.A. Edwards is now a five piece band line-up that includes his brothers Jay on lead guitar and Jerry on drums. Grateful for the opportunity to tour with Lucinda Williams the band were keen to show off their influences, starting with the slow and somewhat bluesy ‘Now You Know‘ which lyrically is an overtly Dylanesque kiss-of of a song. “Might not be the best / And I’m not the first / But I’m not the last babe / And I’m not the worst / It ain’t me babe you’re looking for” which is a pretty clear statement that no, this is not love, far from it. There’s more bad love on ‘Surrender‘ which is more threat than seduction “Because you are mine forever / Means all time / Let there be no mistake / …Surrender.” As a grinding guitar break adds to the stalkerish sense of malevolence, better advice might be to run away, now, and fast. Occasional Petty like touches can be explained by the band’s friendship with Ron Blair who produced their first album (and, apparently, allowed use of his studio for the price of a bottle of tequila a day) with the more upbeat ‘Lousiana‘ which captures the Californian band’s times touring that state in particular. ‘Leaving Los Angles‘ is a love song to a city that Luke sings that he loves more than any girl. A final twist to the set – a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘If I Needed You‘, which is just the three brothers and a guitar around a single mic, is a nod to their youthful harmony singing and is surely an indication of an earlier, folkier, musical incarnation – it’s lovely, with a characteristic further kick that it goes full band for the final verse. A band that are maybe still finding their true sound, but have a wide deck to play with.
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