By: Gregory Stowe, Library Specialist
I remember that I had tumbled to Lucinda Williams before her breakout album Car Wheels on a Dirt Road. Jim Pinfold, DJ on the morning Reasonable Music Show at WMPG played her song “Little Angel, Little Brother” from her album Sweet Old World and I was hooked.
I saw her at the State Theater around 1998 and later at Merrill Auditorium in 2003 just before my father died and at the height of the disaster in Iraq. Both shows were as good as anything I’d seen, and they were both different. The second performance seemed to mark the end of my seeing live music.
That has begun to change again.
I never thought I’d see her again, but she returned to the State Theater for her tour celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Car Wheels. I was leery at first, but it turned out to be like nothing I’d ever seen. She was accompanied by a smaller band than I think I’ve ever seen her with. It was just her on acoustic and electric rhythm guitar, a lead guitarist who may have been born with a guitar melded to his body, a bass player from someplace where Charles Mingus’s jazz notes and Jimi Hendrix’s psychic blues-rock excursions were cross-pollinated and a drummer both fast and furious and also involved in voodoo rites of spell casting and Chinese sword poetry.
They played the entire album in sequence, but it was woven into Lucinda’s long, wonderful rambling stories about the songs, about writing poetry, images of cats resting on a wall leading to puffs of clouds in the sky, photography, her father, lovers, bums, losers, posers and friends, tattered lyrics on walls, stick shift cars, young faces reflected in dashboard gauges, old faces, broken trailers, juke joints, faces pressed against car windows flowing in geographic road maps of the soul. She would get beautifully lost in her stream of consciousness, pulling herself back with her hands floating above her face.
None of it was rehearsed. I thought that it would demystify the songs, but instead, it did the opposite. To hear stories about metal firecrackers, redwoods, broken dreams, shining light, to walk the old streets and dusty highways of Texas and Louisiana with Towns Van Zandt, Steve Earle, and Blaze Foley — and feel the pain of “Drunken Angel”, to hear a song “Concrete and Barbed Wire” written about Southern prison camps, the Berlin Wall, lost lovers, Leadbelly saying Good Night Irene suddenly sadly resonate again with new relevance twenty years later along the Mexican border — to actually see the juxtaposition live of a song like “Joy” followed by “Jackson” is emotionally drenching.
Then she said, “Well now, we will play some songs from other albums” and went down the rabbit hole of dark American hollows. I remember some. The song “Foolishness” stood out from her recent album, Where the Spirit meets the Bone, is rendered vividly with extra lyrics about racism, walls and hatred thrown in – hitting a high note near the end with her cracking, aching voice holding the note for an eternity that just shattered the audience.
There was no end! She went on- went on in the way her star-crossed friend did in “Lake Charles” and played a wicked cover of “Skip James’ Killing Floor Blues.” She’s in her mid sixties now but she still has her grave richness as though her nearly weary voice has weathered into a piece of shiny old oak. She lit up the audience with her oddly shy bluntness. The satisfaction the crowd reflected back lit her up as bright as the stars in the sky. She blew us away as she and her band played for over three hours in that old Art Deco movie theater built in the 1920’s, without a break – no intermission.
I believe she is a treasured gift to this our poor valley country and a tattered world.