Lucinda Williams Pares Down to Brilliant Simplicity
Lucinda Williams’ music borders on the infuriating.
She sings in a lazy voice that sounds, not unpleasantly, like a chair being dragged across a wooden floor. Oodles of her songs hinge on simple two-chord changes (imagine a succession of Stones albums where nearly every riff is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” revisited).
She’s equally spare with her lyrics: On the title song of her current “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” album, she repeats the title refrain 18 times, with not that many other words in between.
When the album’s “Concrete and Barbed Wire” repeats its title line 19 times, you start to wonder: “This is what it took her six years to accomplish since her last album?”
Williams doesn’t exactly cut a rug onstage, either, instead just sort of standing there with what one writer has described as a “deer in the headlights” look.
So you might think that her two-hour concert Saturday at the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana would have been an endurance test, rather than the rapturous show it was, where the packed, sold-out house led two standing ovations for more.
Williams may be simple, but she’s simple like cinnamon toast. Something about her lean, parsed-out music can keep a fan coming back to her albums for dozens and dozens of repeat listens, and that familiarity in no way diminishes her music’s power to help see listeners through a dark night.
Williams sings about death, loss, yearning, regret and a few good kisses with an honesty, directness and individual insight that recalls that other Williams: Hank.
Being a Lucinda fan used to be a lonely business, but the release last year of the long, long anticipated “Car Wheels” changed that. In February, that disc won the album of the year nod in the Village Voice national critics poll and the Grammy for contemporary folk album. (She won her first Grammy in 1994, for writing the Mary-Chapin Carpenter hit “Passionate Kisses.” Williams was also nominated this year in the female rock vocal performance category.)
Offsetting those triumphs, Williams lost longtime drummer Donald Lindley to lung cancer Feb. 4. (The much-respected and well-liked musician also had worked with Dave Alvin, Joe Ely and Chris Gaffney, among others.) Williams dedicated Saturday’s show to Lindley, and it would have been a fitting tribute for anyone, spilling over with the compressed emotion and musicality at which she excels.
She opened with “Pineola” from her exquisite 1992 album “Sweet Old World,” a taut, snarling song of anger and loss over a friend’s suicide.
Death pops up in Williams’ songs about as often as it does in life, and two of the standout songs Saturday were the aching “Sweet Old World,” about the simple joys left unsampled by a departed one, and “Drunken Angel,” about a songwriter friend shot and killed “in a senseless argument.”
The song carries some of her most evocative lyrics: “Some kind of savior singin’ the blues / A derelict in your duct-taped shoes / Your orphan clothes and your long dark hair / Lookin’ like you didn’t care, Drunken Angel.”
Her lyrics are so seemingly grounded in real experience that Williams said people always come up to her to express condolences over her brother’s death after hearing of him curled up on a car seat in her “Little Angel, Little Brother.” Before performing the song Saturday, however, she reassured the audience, “He wasn’t dead, he was just dead drunk.”
With such grim material, Williams’ music doesn’t exactly seemed aimed at the hit parade. Williams noted Saturday that she is to be the keynote speaker at this month’s South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, where, she said, she expects to deliver a speech titled “Why I Don’t Want to Be a Star, by Lucinda Williams.”
“Too late, baby!” yelled someone in the audience, prompting Williams to respond, “OK, but only on my terms.”
The six-year ordeal of getting “Car Wheels” recorded and released had a lot to do with record-company politics, she said, but there also was reportedly a lot of second-guessing and reworking on her part, which led to a falling out with her longtime guitarist, co-producer and right-hand man, Gurf Morlix.
They shared a musical empathy of the Jackson Browne-David Lindley variety, and the fire and individualism of Morlix’s guitar work was missed Saturday.
While lacking that bit of magic, Williams nonetheless has a tremendous five-piece band, able to finesse her more tender songs such as “Greenville” and to burn like the “Exile on Main St."-era Stones on others.
Guitarists John Jackson (who also played slide and mandolin-guitar) and Kenny Vaughan had interlocking rhythm lines that kept the songs churning like paddle wheels, and each proved a scorching soloist.
Keyboardist Randy Leago added deft touches of color throughout, while bassist Richard Price and drummer Fran Breen were a rhythm section so perfectly glove-tight that no one would have been acquitted with them around.
That ensemble worked to great effect on “Can’t Let Go,” the country blues-tinged adult-alternative favorite written by Randy Weeks of the Lonesome Strangers.
The band took extended instrumental excursions on “Changed the Locks” and “Joy,” songs that also indicated the sometimes clumsy pacing of the show. Each song is Williams pared to the bone: no chorus, no bridge, just a nonstop repeating riff and a vocal that is mantra-like in its repetition. Singly, each of these songs can be a virtual show-stopper, raw and obsessive and leaving a listener no place to turn. But done back-to-back, as they were Saturday, they verged on the tedious.
Similarly, three blues songs done in succession during the extended encore would have worked better interspersed throughout the set.
Williams said during her performance that show opener Patty Griffin also deserved a Grammy, and the singer-songwriter does indeed have a lot to offer.
Her eight-song set, drawn largely from her recent “Flaming Red” album, displayed a singer with a voice that draws from both country and jazz and a songwriter who can show that rock isn’t entirely dead yet.