Though I've been a fan for 20 years, I've never seen Lucinda Williams on stage. This is not due to any edict on my part, just the means and motive never matching up with opportunity.
So suffer this fool gladly, or at least kindly, if what I'm about to say is common knowledge: Lucinda Williams is a master. Or maybe she has only become more so now that she's getting close to a 30 year career. In any case, she is at that rare place as a performer where she is both completely herself, a true original, while never shutting the audience out.
Her comfort zone includes areas of extreme power, enough to even be discomfiting at times. A case in point is Unsuffer Me, now quite a different beast than the version I remember from West, which was maybe a little overproduced and shy of itself. No more. It's a journey into the blackest heart of darkness, such that a chill went down my spine when she first intoned "Come into my world of loneliness, of wickedness, of bitterness, anoint my head with your kiss." This is longing and bottomless need, expressed with and utter lack of self-consciousness.
In this, as in all things during the concert I just saw in Prospect Park, she is perfectly matched by guitarist Stuart Mathis, who must be one of the best six-stringers around now, on the road and on record. He came loaded for bear with about eight gorgeous instruments, which he deployed perfectly, fitting their strengths to each song. How Mathis comes up with one solo after another that feels fresh, emotionally engaged, virtuosic, wonderfully gritty and a little dangerous is one of the wonders of our age. The bassist and drummer were spectacular as well, locking into that groove that distinguishes William's best work. It's hard to imagine a better band on tour this summer.
The concert was also an expertly sequenced slice of her vast catalog of songs, showcasing a lot of the tougher side of her canon. This connected completely with her body language, which has her moving in a way that has nothing to do with display. This is the way I dance, she seems to be saying, get used to it.
Her toughness always contains compassion, though, which allows her to deliver songs like Drunken Angel with a hard-won tenderness, as if she just wrote it yesterday. She can also have fun, belting out The Clash's Should I Stay Or Should I Go with a delightful insouciance during the encore.
So here we have an American treasure, still propelled by the jetstream of one of her finest albums (Where The Spirit Meets The Bone), in excellent voice, phrasing like a jazz singer, and accompanied by an excellent and sympatico trio of musicians with plenty of personality of their own. What are you waiting for? See Lucinda Williams.