WELCOME BACK HONEY
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' beat up
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.