WELCOME BACK HONEY Lucinda Williams

On the opening night
of her
Little Honey tour Luce reminds
us of why we loved her in the first place.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

First things first: Little
Honey
, Lucinda Williams’ ninth studio album, out October 14 from Lost Highway, isn’t
a career-maker. She’s already got a career, thank you very much, among the most
celebrated in Americana, and she carved out an iconic spot in music – and
burrowed her way into our hearts – more than a decade ago. The record is,
however, a career-definer, simultaneously
a recapper and recontextualizer of all the things that make her special and
that continue to hold our attention even during the creative fallow periods
that artists must inevitably weather. (There’s a reason we call folks like
Williams “artists” and your Mariah Careys of the world “entertainers”; in the
former’s works we see reflected our own humanity, our weaknesses and strengths,
our joys and tragedies, while in the latter we project whatever ephemeral,
escapist notions that happen to cross our minds on any particular week.)

 

From the album’s opening track, the surging, angular, almost
punk-feeling riff-rocker “Real Love”; through several blues compositions,
including the soulful/sensual “Tears Of Joy,” country-honker “Well Well Well”
and the swampy, slide/harp-fueled “Heavy Blues”; to an out-of-the-blue AC/DC
cover, “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” so outrageous
and so perfect that should Brian Johnson ever fall ill, Angus Young knows who
he can call if he needs a last minute sub: Little
Honey
never falters. It’s exquisitely sequenced and paced to give it a
compelling sense of flow, and it’s performed with an almost swaggering level of
confidence (primarily just Williams and her backing band Buick 6: guitar whiz Doug
Pettibone, bassist David Sutton, drummer Butch Norton and guitarist/keyboardist
Chet Lyster, plus keyboardist Rob Burger and guest vocalists Matthew Sweet,
Susanna Hoffs, Jim Lauderdale, Tim Easton Charlie Louvin and Elvis Costello –
the latter on a bring-down-the house George & Tammy/Conway &
Loretta-styled duet, “Jailhouse Tears”). That confidence extends to Williams’
vocals, too. As a singer, even on her weaker material she rarely disappoints,
but here she seems positively fired up by the opportunity to simply kick out
the jams and let her signature raspy purr/drawl follow the music’s insistent
groove.

 

‘Twas not always the case in recent years. After 1998’s Car
Wheels On A Gravel Road
and 2001’s Essence, both brilliant,
Williams, it seemed, could do no wrong, and for 2003’s World Without Tears nary a critic stood up to call it what it was: lazy and ragged, adrift in
half-formed arrangements and tossed-off vocals, including some of clumsiest
white-girl rapping this side of Deborah Harry. That was followed in 2005 by a
stopgap concert album, Live @ the
Fillmore
, which despite reprising much of her classic material, seemed to
unfold in slow motion, as if through a Quaalude haze; it didn’t pick up any
steam until Disc 2, by which point the listener, too, had been lulled.

 

Then came last year’s West,
and initially Williams seems back on message, purring and growling lustily
against a backdrop of noirish blooze and sensual, folk-pop. The album smoldered,
from the strings-laden, sex + pain = religion “Unsuffer Me” to a moody
meditation on life titled “What If.” But with “smolder” the operative term – there
was nary an uptempo rocker to be found – it never really caught fire and was best
taken in small three-song blocs, lest your eyelids droop over the course of 70 minutes.
Glossy on the surface, unnecessarily fussy, Hal Wilner production-wise,
underneath, West ultimately succumbed to an overdose of torpor. As I
wrote at the time: Lucinda, set an alarm
clock next time you go into the studio.

 

She did just that for Little
Honey
. Welcome back, Luce.

 

 

***

 

So – Little Honey tour opener, September 25, Asheville, NC, the Orange Peel, named earlier this year by Rolling Stone as one of the top five
music clubs in America.
This was to kick off a 27-city run that concludes in mid-November with a
two-night Fillmore stand in San
Francisco. Parked on the side street next to the club
were three massive tour buses, each hauling an equally humongous trailer
housing, presumably, the gear a rock band needs to mount an effective auditorium/theater
tour. Point of fact, the Asheville show was initially slated for the larger,
more formal Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, which has a seating capacity of about
2500, but at the last minute slow ticket sales prompted a move of the show to
the considerably more intimate Orange Peel (cap.: 942). Earlier in the week it
had also been announced that the Knoxville show scheduled for the following
evening at the 1545-seater Tennessee Theatre had been moved to the Bijou (cap.:
750). Lost Highway politely declined to disclose actual ticket counts but did
concede that the situation was disappointing. Offered a spokesman at the label,
“Let’s just say, we would’ve liked the numbers to be a bit higher.”

 

One presumes that neither label nor promoters
needs to worry once the early word on this tour gets out.

 

A lesser artist might have bitched and moaned about the
situation; the change from large auditorium to midsized club undoubtedly forced
some compromises in the staging and lighting, and there were indeed a few glitches,
primarily involving the above-stage screen projections (a good bit of that gear
being transported in the aforementioned trailers probably went unused this
evening, too). Instead, Williams took the challenge as an opportunity to seek
out the silver lining. Let’s face it, no artist wants to be looking out at a
venue that’s only about half-full, so the move from Thomas Wolfe to the Orange
Peel turned out to be a smart one, with the crowd getting an unexpected
up-close-and-personal show and Williams benefiting from a unique brand of
feedback immediacy that just isn’t possible when performing in front of a
seated audience that’s separated from the stage by a large gap or orchestra
pit.

 

A nearly 2 ½ hour show ensued, and by the end the packed
venue had been reduced to aching feet, sore palms, hoarse throats, and
ear-to-ear grins. Williams herself seemed positively thrilled at the response,
chatting with the audience, dancing with the band members, and soaking in the
proverbial tight-but-loose vibe that can be the hallmark of a great concert.

 

The opening act was… drumroll please… Buick 6. Not to be
confused with the British electric blues band Buick 6, but rather the L.A.-based,
electric blues band Buick 6, a/k/a Williams’ backing band: Pettibone, Lyster,
Sutton and Norton. The quartet plowed through a rousing set comprising mostly
instrumentals, the players frequently swapping places and demonstrating an
effortless virtuosity that made it eminently clear this was no mere garden
variety support-the-star ensemble. When Pettibone strapped on a harmonica rack
and used harp lines to sub for the vocals in a cover of Led Zep’s “Black Dog”
the crowd emitted whoops of delight, and the blazing closing number, Neil Young’s
“Cinnamon Girl,” pushed things over the edge to leave the room fully primed for
the headliner.

 

Following a short break the band was right back up there,
smiling broadly at Williams as she walked onstage attired in a gauzy, see-through
white blouse partially opened to reveal a naughty black pushup bra. Positioned
just to the left of her microphone was a music stand bearing pages of lyrics,
and throughout the show Williams made no effort to hide the fact that she had
to consult the sheets for certain songs, at one point even drawing attention to
the stand when she quipped, “I can’t afford those teleprompters!”

 

She needn’t have apologized; such was the sheer viscerality
and seductive grace of her performance. Williams and her band opened with the
same song that opens Little Honey,
“Real Love,” duly setting the pace for a high-energy show that peaked several
times yet managed to reach a higher level at each successive crest. Much of the
first part spotlighted the new album: “Tears Of Joy,” a slow, sexy waltz-time
blues with desire-drenched lyrics letting Williams play the role of honky-tonk
queen; “Jailhouse Tears,” the Costello duet, guitarist Pettibone subbing for
E.C. as the singers swapped lyric one-liners and laid the groundwork for the
song’s eventual arrival at countrypolitan-classic status; “If Wishes Were
Horses,” stately like a Tom Petty southern accent and luminous with brushed
drums, acoustic guitar and Lyster’s piano (“C’mon and give me one more chance,”
pleaded Williams, her voice crackling with emotion); “Little Rock Star,” an
atmospheric, U2-esque waltz-anthem highlighted by Pettibone’s soaring,
arpeggiated licks.

 

Positioned above the stage on both the left and right sides
were the venue’s video screens upon which were projected liquid light-styled
psychedelics. This was all well and good, but cameras also superimposed images
of the band members on the screens, and whether intentional or not, the fact
that the musicians were never fully in focus resulted in a kind of amateurishly
blurry, dawn-of-rock-videos effect better suited for a VH1-Classic flashback
segment than a 2008 concert. Perhaps it will be more convincing on larger
screens later in the tour. At one point the guy standing to my left pointed at
the screens and laughed in my ear, “It’s Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert!”

 

But that was the only technical hitch, and only a couple of
times did Williams and the band even seem to hesitate when going into the next
song (one reckons that they opted for a more fluid setlist when it became clear
that many of the usual staging and lighting cues wouldn’t be utilized). Fans
who wanted their dose of Vintage Lucinda – recall that Little Honey was still almost three weeks away from release, and
local radio was only just now beginning to preview songs from it – were
rewarded by plenty of the good ‘uns. Early in the show there was the always-gorgeous
“Steal Your Love,” from Essence. That
album’s equally timeless “Out Of Touch” proved a mid-set high point, sonically
an uplifting cross between Petty’s “Refugee” and Springsteen” “Promised Land”
and lyrically a meditation upon the psychic ties that can bind us together and
the emotional forces that can pull us apart. “I think this is appropriate for
the times,” Williams said by way of intro, and with one succinct statement she
brilliantly pulled the lens back to transform an intensely personal song into
one with contemporary universal resonance. Essence‘s
title track also sent a collective shudder of delight through the room as Buick
6 rolled the slinkysexycool tune’s hoodoo down and Williams dripped feral desire
in that indelible pumice-scraped voice of hers: “I am waiting…” she moaned,
over and over.

 

Other highlights included bruising, rocking, howling
versions of “Changed the Locks” (from Fillmore),
“Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings” (World Without Tears) and “Joy”  (Car
Wheels
), jokingly intro’d as “a great Bettye LaVette song” (the soul singer
famously covered the Williams composition on her 2005 album “I’ve Got My Own
Hell To Raise”). The latter was dirty blooze/roots rock at it finest,
eventually turning into a Pettibone-Lyster-Williams three-guitar jam session;
when Pettibone served up his second Led Zep nod of the evening by ripping off
metallic “Heartbreaker” riffs, Williams laughed and looked on delightedly.

 

Over two hours elapsed before the band finally left the
stage, but they came back quickly for a four-song encore. The next to last
number was prefaced by a brief political speech from Williams that was
definitely pro-Obama but steered clear of preaching, the singer instead emphasizing
how much is at stake this year and how important it is to get out to vote.
Then, with the musicians easing into a slow, loping groove (it initially fooled
some of us into thinking we were about to get “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten”), they unveiled
a note-perfect cover of “For What It’s Worth,” which is appropriate anytime but
is especially relevant during an election period. Williams’ voice was just as clear
as it had been at the beginning of the show, and she sang the tune with such an
uncommon conviction that the entire crowd sang along with her.

 

One last number and they were outta there: the AC/DC track which
closes the album. An entire room full of people moved in time to the crunching
rhythm, and as the song unfolded it seemed like Williams and her band had long
ago taken its titular manifesto to heart:

 

 

 

Ridin’ down the
highway
Goin’ to a show
Stop in all the byways
Playin’ rock ‘n’ roll
Gettin’ robbed
Gettin’ stoned
Gettin’ beat up
Broken boned
Gettin’ had
Gettin’ took
I tell you folks
It’s harder than it looks…

 

 

Well, maybe it is harder
than it looks from the outside looking in. Tonight, though, Williams made it
look easy. “I love all that shoutin’!” she’d whooped at one point earlier in
the evening, following a particularly raucous crowd response. And whether or
not she realized she’d already won us over and stolen our hearts, the
suggestion was that we’d stolen her heart
as well. I’m betting that as an artist she was pleasantly surprised by the way
the changed-venue events turned out. This evening, everybody was a winner.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Danny Clinch]

 

 

 

 

 

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