A nuanced singer-songwriter and old-soul Americana-ist as demonstrably badass as Lucinda Williams is automatically going to yield a badass night, and that’s just what the southern Stevie Nicks of tumbleweed-twang gave us.
Sam Cooke once commented after being told he had a beautiful voice by saying, “Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Affirmatively, Lucinda Williams’s earnest songs, guard-down persona, and freewheelin’ stories easily convince you that she’s telling the tragic and triumphant truths of her sixty-four years of living. In fact, she was sixty-three during the show and her birthday was the next day, which a front-row fan knew and shamelessly shouted out “Happy Birthday tomorrow!” After she acknowledged the kind gesture, Neptune’s sold out crowd of 1,800 burst into singing happy birthday without any hesitation.
Since she started in the late 70s, Williams has been a well deep and brimming with bittersweet experiences that surface in her personality and performances. The dichotomy of pain and pleasure comes out in the timbre of her voice and in the passion of her at-times-blues-rock, at-times-alt-country songwriting. The crowd’s warm welcoming three songs in made Williams “shy, yet comfortable” – her words – which later led the raconteur to catch herself being a “runaway train talking about things she’d never thought she’d say on stage.”
Grammy-winning Williams was joined by guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton, and drummer Butch Norton. Not only do these gentlemen make up her backing band but are also the instrumental rock trio Buick 6, who opened the show with their beckoning of the blues and experimental techniques such as a distorted banjo played like a guitar and Butch Nelson’s well-played but zany placement of unconventional percussive elements.
In turn, Williams joined us in promotion of her twelfth studio album, The Ghost of Highway 20, that came out last year. Before she played the goose bump-inducing title track by herself she played favorites like “Burning Bridges” and “Drunken Angel” and shed light on dusty, larger-than-life anecdotes about Blaze Foley passing out on pool tables, Ethan Hawke coming out with a movie about Foley, and how no one could keep up with Townes Van Zandt when it came to things like drinking. Her stories embody just as much, if not more, of her gravitas as her songs do, if they can even be separated.
After several shouts of “Lucinda for President,” many dexterously dirty solos from Stuart Mathis, and more funny stories about dysfunctional relationships she’s been in, like ones where guys stole priceless guitars and her Grammy, she switched gears as her band sat out a few songs. Her first solo silhouette was “Walk On.” After playing she commented on how originally it was a song about unrequited love, but now translates as a modern day female protest song, which prodded her to talk about the recent Women’s march. Next she explained, in her deep drawl, the significance of Highway 20 before playing title track. Highway 20 was a corridor of touch points throughout her early life as her siblings were born in Jackson and Vicksburg, Mississippi and she started school in Macon, Georgia. It represented a connection of her roots and how they’ll alway be there. It was sparsely structured with picked chords that were darkly haunting (think Cohen’s “Avalanche”) like a personified ghost of your past.
Among other things, Lucinda Williams is lionized for her frank and relatable lyrics. Having grown up in and around literature (her dad, Miller Williams a famous poet) and music (her mom a music teacher at LSU), Lucinda Williams was born to write, born to be a musician, and knew it at an early age, which she told Charlie Rose once in a 2001 interview. In a more recent interview with NPR she talked about how sad it was to witness her father lose his ability to write poetry, which definitely makes her lyrical songs even more of a pulling-at-the-heartstring legacy for her and her family history.
“Life if full of heartbreak, but it’s never more than you can take.” These truthful words sum up Lucinda’s musicianship pretty well. She’s laden with lament, but blessed with unbelievable strength and talent to rise above.