Still going strong

Lucinda Williams, Orpheum Theatre, March 24, 2007
By JIM SULLIVAN  |  March 27, 2007
DARK ROOTS: No matter how rocking Williams gets, her touchstones remain “Delta blues, country, and folk.”

“It’s not that often that a 54-year-old woman achieves her greatest success,’’ said Lucinda Williams from the Orpheum stage last Saturday, referring to the trajectory of her career. “It’s about the talent, about the work. Thanks for letting me into the fold.” That career was jump-started in 1998 by Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury), an album that came out in the wake of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s hit of the Williams-penned “Passionate Kisses.” But the tide keeps rising. Williams — sporting a blond shag, baby-doll tunic, jeans, and brown leather jacket — sold out the Orpheum, and she drew from her latest, the mournful, pensive, and often ambient West (Lost Highway). But she didn’t emphasize it or even plug it. Before an encore of Skip James’s “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” she made a point of restating her influences — “Delta blues, country, and folk — it’s all still there.” So, yes, on the Hal Willner–produced West, she does move toward Marianne Faithfull/Lou Reed territory. But she’s still entrenched in alt-country/roots rock.

Backed by guitarist Doug Pettibone, drummer Don Heffington, and new bassist David Sutton, she began quietly, seductively, with the soft sting of “Rescue,” and she ended that way too. These were literate, melancholy songs in the key of languid. Songs about loss, coping, wreckage. “Learning How To Live” was wrenching in both its pain and its acceptance. “Essence” began with a plea for a lover’s dominance and ended with the singer asking him to help her “get fucked up.”

The rocking came mid set; the highlights included “Come On,” which she described as “a take-off on ’70s cock rock.” She moved from strutting confidence to palpable fragility; the baggage, she makes it clear, is there, but so are the hopes and dreams. Even her most blistering rock has a melancholy subtext. She doesn’t give in to unbridled happiness; neither does she let the demons beat her down.

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