(A shorter version of this piece is published in today’s Paper of Record. Thanks to whomever it was over there at 15th and L who came up with the headline.)
Lucinda Williams is more than a little bit country and more than a little bit rock and roll. More specifically, she’s a little Hank Williams, a little John Coltrane, a little Chet Baker, and a little Loretta Lynn. Those were the influences she name-checked halfway through her marvelous 100-minute set at Wolf Trap Sunday night, and you could hear the ghosts of all of them — even Lynn, who is, you know, not dead — hovering in the rafters of the Filene Center as Williams took her sweet time working through a program that largely eschewed the hits in favor whatever she damn well felt like playing.
So: a half-dozen from this year’s fine West album, including the slow-burning opener, “Rescue,” and later, the pairing of “Mama You Sweet” and “Fancy Funeral.” That somber two-fer prompted Williams to call an audible for the upbeat “I Lost It,” “because I don’t want everybody to be crying in their beers,” she said. “Well, actually I do.” The night’s liveliest performance was either “Righteously” or “Honeybee,” a new Williams original that sounded like the kind of Bo Diddley stomp that the Rolling Stones might have covered on their earliest records. Williams’s ace band, especially Doug Pettibone’s volcanic electric guitar, shone on both these rockers, though they sounded just as sublime on sultrier stuff like “Unsuffer Me” or “Are You Down.”
A lack of momentum was the gig’s only flaw. That isn’t surprising given Williams’ notorious, unhurried perfectionism — one of the reasons it took her until her mid-forties, and 1998’s Grammy-winning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, to become a star.
It’s strange to remember now that Williams’ first successes came as a songwriter, with Patty Loveless, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and even Tom Petty covering her material. (“Crescent City,” a Williams song Emmylou Harris recorded prior to its author’s mainstream breakthrough, was one of the show’s rarities.) Because while her songs are frequently superb, it’s Williams’s voice that pierces your heart. Blessed with a naturally-occurring slur, its ragged majesty can imbue even a goofy song like Ed Bruce’s “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” with grace.
Williams was confident enough to say goodnight with the unfamiliar “The Knowing,” a West outtake. Here’s hoping it makes the live album this tour richly deserves.
Charlie Louvin opened the show with a trip through one of the deepest and most remarkable songbooks in country music. It was a testament to his influence that many of the songs he performed (“Must You Throw Dirt in My Face,” “Atomic Power,” “The Christian Life”) were familiar from several subsequent generations of musicians having played them. Louvin sang soulfully for an hour — generous for an opener; astonishing for a man who celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this month. “The Christian Life,” indeed.
3 Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
4 Crescent City
5 Mama You Sweet
6 Fancy Funeral
7 I Lost It
8 Still I Long for Your Kiss
10 Where Is My Love
11 Honeybee (new post-West rocker; amazing)
13 Unsuffer Me
14 Get Right with God
15 Everything Has Changed
16 Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys (yup, that one — Ed Bruce wrote it)
17 Honey Chile (Fats Domino cover)
18 Are You Down
19 The Knowing (West outtake)