"That song and this one are real country music," quipped Lucinda Williams between two songs from her new album, "Little Honey," at the Riviera on Friday night. "Country music that's too country for Nashville."
The words, while delivered with humor, pretty much sum up Lucinda Williams' renegade relationship with the commercial country scene. Aptly mining country, blues, folk, pop and rock, Williams defies genre pigeon-holing, and though that has been appreciated by fans, peers and critics, it's perhaps also limited her reach within country circles.
Her last appearances in Chicago a year ago comprised two sold-out stints at the Vic and traversed more of her heartbreaking songs. The Riviera, while well attended, was not sold out.
Touring on "Little Honey," an album housing a more celebratory sound, Williams focused on her more rocking, if not always as poignant, fare. Williams pulled out many classics during the nearly two-hour set, which illustrated that while her latest work may sizzle musically, the lyrics—one of Williams' most prominent fortes—are more straightforward and less poetic. "Honey Bee's" rollicking musical wallop was lyrically repetitive and beneath Williams' capable storytelling. Her gift for phrasing was lost in the formulaic chorus of new songs such as "Real Love."
Her stellar backing/opening band, Buick 6, and Williams, who alternated between acoustic and electric guitar, gave the new material extra punch with extended instrumentals live. Vocally, Williams was at her finest. Whether it was the gritty and defiant "Joy" or the wistful "Out of Touch"—her emotive intonations added even more depth to her lyric's conveyed emotions. New songs, such as the swinging "Jailhouse Tears" and her huskily delivered bluesy "Tears of Joy" aligned well with her early work.
She encored with covers of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" from a forthcoming protest EP and AC/DC's "Long Way to the Top" from "Little Honey."
Though her recent lyrics aren't always on point, the 55-year-old Williams just keeps getting better.