From today’s perspective it’s hard to underestimate the importance of Lucinda Williams’ ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ to the Americana genre. While its impact on release in 1998 wasn’t particularly apparent (it only reached 65 on the Billboard 200 chart), it was given a major boost through countless positive reviews which culminated in it winning a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Since then, it’s been understandably referred to as a seminal work, kickstarting the Americana movement, and is rightly considered as one of the best albums of the 1990s. On the 20th anniversary of its release Williams has been playing the album in its entirety and tonight it was London’s turn.
The early start of 7.30pm at the Barbican on Saturday night clearly wrongfooted a number of ticketholders who were still arriving some 30 to 40 minutes after the performance had started. This made for some rather awkward situations given the largely middle-aged nature of the audience, some of whom with mobility problems were struggling to take their seats in the darkened environment of the venue’s theatre style setting.
The early start time eventually made sense. A run through of the album, followed by a selection of her other numbers – originally slated to be of 90 minutes’ duration was still happening some two hours and 30 minutes later – Williams’ deeply personal and expansive backstories to each tune sometimes outlasting the length of the songs themselves.
Throughout the performance of ‘Car Wheels’ there was a backdrop, comprising a montage of photographs, handwritten lyrics, posters, and occasional video footage which brought an emotional connection to the songs entirely lacking from just an auditory experience of the album. Between each song Lucinda Williams would refer to notes from a music stand, not unlike a conductor, which helped act as an aide memoir for her.
Ahead of this year long tour, Lucinda Williams had contemplated changing the sequencing of the ‘Car Wheels’ songs in a live environment, however, it appears from setlists for this European leg that the original album order is being followed. There’s not much of a better one-two start to a record than ‘Right In Time’ and the following title track, the first a remarkably frank evocation of sensuality and lustfulness, whereas ‘Car Wheels’ itself proves a powerful evocation of childhood memory and her itinerant upbringing. Pre-song, Lucinda Williams related the discovery that while she’d always thought the song was written from a third person perspective it wasn’t until her father heard a performance at one of her concerts that he was moved enough to apologise, and this caused her to appreciate the deeply personal nature of the lyrics: “Child in the backseat ‘bout four or five years / Lookin’ out the window / Little bit of dirt mixed with tears.” The tune itself is accompanied by a video she stumbled across of her father, herself, and her siblings when they were either driving to Mexico or coming back from there.
Memories of former compatriots such as Blaze Foley – who was shot to death the year following the album release and how it was easier for the local owner to let him sleep on a pool table at the bar he frequented – were conveyed with both humour and pathos, while the photographic imagery which accompanied her dedication to Blaze on ‘Drunken Angel’, as well as on other songs, were almost as captivating as her explanations, adding rich detail and context. This worked particularly well on ‘Lake Charles’ with a photographic image of her then boyfriend, Clyde Woodward, clutching a fifth of Jack Daniels, the lifestyle eventually catching up with him in 1991, and like so many of Lucinda Williams’ contemporaries, succumbing to an early death. The revelation – as though it needed stating tonight – is that the craft of storytelling is what makes for a classic album: songs like ‘Drunken Angel’, ‘Lake Charles’ and ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ – all with their own unique tales to tell.
The funniest story of the evening was reserved for ‘Metal Firecracker’, about a brief, intense tour bus romance with a bass player she dumped her boyfriend for, only for him to say something akin to: “I love you, baby, but I’m having trouble fitting you into my agenda.” This caused a lot of laughter and it’s to Williams’ immense credit that she’s now willing to convey these stories with so little apparent embarrassment.
From the song ‘Can’t Let Go’, onwards however, the images took something of a backseat which was perhaps more appropriate for a song written by Randy Weeks. This made up the second part of the set, where her backing band, Buick 6 – Stuart Mathis (guitar), David Sutton (bass) and Butch Norton (drums) – slowly take on an enhanced role. ‘Joy’ was the song on ‘Car Wheels’ which really demonstrated Lucinda Williams’ rock credentials and here she gave Buick 6 the chance to really cut loose. Although the show may have been less visually arresting from this point, the stories didn’t lose their impact as was demonstrated in a retelling about how the song ‘I Lost It’ was inspired by her annoyance at seeing bumper stickers saying “I Found It”.
A very brief interval at the end of the ‘Car Wheels’ album is followed by ‘Ghosts of Highway 20’ which Williams performed solo. It’s a natural successor to ‘Car Wheels’ as “this time I’m driving the car, looking out the window” – no longer the childish backseat passenger. The song is also better suited to her weather-beaten vocals, pitched as it is somewhere in the mid-range. Williams has always been renowned as an expressive singer but her voice is a bit exposed in the upper range nowadays, while she occasionally seems to sing – somewhat deliberately – either slightly ahead or behind the beat.
It’s in these latter numbers that Williams has introduced some wildcards to these shows and ‘Ghosts’ is followed by ‘Fruits of My Labors’ and ‘West Memphis’. No Lucinda Williams performance is really complete without ‘Changed the Locks’ and it’s clear the pride she takes in having a song she wrote covered by Tom Petty before he died. She also expresses her gratitude to the Rough Trade label for taking a chance on her at the time seeing as her musical style – “too country for rock”, “too rock for country” – had music execs scratching their heads at how to promote her, “it took an English punk label to get me”. The audience is brought to their feet towards the finish of the show for ‘Foolishness’ which you can only conclude is a withering rebuke to our leaders of the free world.
At the end of the performance it’s perhaps easy to forget that Lucinda Williams had already been in the music business for two decades by the time she released ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’. Like many heritage tours, the evening makes you slightly nostalgic for the Lucinda Williams of 20 years ago and the passing of your own life. It’s also a salutary reminder that the nature of the music business today means those of similar talent and ability are likely to be slogging away in the foothills for decades to come and will probably never achieve the recognition Lucinda Williams has rightly managed since she started out in 1978. When she attempts to sum up the evening by stating: “Who I am now is who I was then”, it probably leads to some philosophical audience musing on whether you’re ever really the same person after more than two decades. But even a passing listen to her recorded work demonstrates there’s no more nakedly autobiographical artist alive – and the imagery, lyrics and video which accompanied this evening – added an extra dimension that means you could never hear the album in quite the same way again.
Lucinda Williams is a person who’d drawn deep from the well of life – someone who’s consumed and been consumed. Given the extraordinary nature of her writing ability, aligned to her vivid recall, wit and humour, one thing’s for certain: her literary memoirs are going to make essential reading.