(Barbican Centre, London, 17th June 2013. Review by Alison Bentley)
The T-shirts on sale in the foyer read: ‘You took my joy, I want it back’. Taken from singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams’ Joy, it epitomises the strength of her songs: she’s not just going to sit back and take everything life gives her. As her poet father put it: ‘…her songs…have dirt under the fingernails’. The voice said it all: like whiskey and honey with the dust of the road in it, a tiny figure in black with a colossal sound.
Born in Louisiana in 1953, she grew up listening to Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Dylan and Delta blues, and these strands are all woven into her songs. When she sang Skip James’ Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues, her trio turned it into an electric blues, the one chord kind, like Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightnin’. David Sutton hit the back of his arch-top bass like a bodhran, before sliding up the strings behind Williams’ strummed guitar. Her Honey Bee recalled Muddy Waters’ song of the same name, with its bluesy #9 chords and John Lee Hooker-like guitar fills from Doug Pettibone. ‘I’m so glad you stung me/ You’ve become my weakness/Now I’ve got your sweetness’.
Something Wicked This Way Comes was like Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads, ‘Looking at the devil hiding in the grass’. Pettibone’s blues guitar solo bubbled through the ‘hellfire and brimstone’ dry ice to evoke Williams’ ‘Southern Gothic’ song. In Car Wheels on a Gravel Road she had some of Bessie Smith’s growl. The lyrics hinted at a story, a woman’s flight with a child: ‘Little bit of dirt mixed with tears…telephone poles trees and wires fly on by.’ In Can’t Let Go, Pettibone’s slide guitar blended seamlessly with the smoky voice.
Bluesiness was often mingled with country. Sweet Old World has been recorded by Neil Young, and Williams’ quavering voice was very like him here. At higher volume she had some Etta James huskiness, contrasting with Sutton and Pettibone’s sweet vocal harmonies.’Looking for some truth, dancing with no shoes/The beat, the rhythm,the blues’ In When I Look at the World Pettibone’s tremolo guitar melted everything together. The country feel came from the instrumentation: Pettibone’s delicate mandolin and, best of all, his pedal steel guitar. In Ventura, you were lost in the melody as its swooning sound echoed the gritty vocal lines: ‘Stand in the shower/Clean this dirty mess/Give me back my power/And drown this unholiness’. In Pineola and Copenhagen, there was a real sense of catharsis as she sang of the shock of friends’ deaths: ‘Thundering news hits me like a snowball/ struck in my face and shattering’.
In the rockier songs Williams sounded more on the edge, like Janis Joplin. In Drunken Angel and I Lost It the voice twined with Pettiford’s Dylan-esque mouth organ and BB KIng style guitar. But the upbeat Blessed must be the song to show that she’s found it: ‘We were blessed by the girl selling roses /Showed us how to live… We were blessed by the hungry man/Who filled us with love’ should be on the flipside of the T-shirt.
Lucinda Williams has won folk, country and rock Grammys, and feels people find it hard to categorise her –but, she said, ‘I’m just me’. This wonderful gig felt like the work of a woman being herself.