Thursday, March 12, 2015

Summon The Spirit, Cut To The Bone: Lucinda Williams Live

06 MARCH, 2015
In yet another twist to keeping the touring grind fresh, Lucinda Williams' recent strategy, the Tour of California, paid dividends with her making a rare central coast venture to land at the historic Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara. Started as an opera house by Jose Lobero in 1873, the theater has seen history ranging from Marian Anderson to Baryshnikov, with green room photos serving as a veritable museum. According to local lore, Williams herself was positioned to play here, commensurate with the Car Wheels On A Gravel Road tour in 1998, but postponed due to an invitation to appear on Saturday Night Live. Aside from appearances at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, and down the highway at the Ventura Theatre, it was only now that this was put right.
Lucinda kicked out the jams in a show that threatened the three hour mark by the time the final curtain call was made, spotlighting her most recent work, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, the first release on her own Highway 20 label, while leaving plenty of space to backtrack through her catalog. Accompanied by the mighty Buick 6, (David Sutton bass, Butch Norton drums, Stuart Mathis guitar), she launched the proceedings with the swamp creep of the new "Something Wicked This Way Comes", then dropped into the Car Wheels title track. When she had a coughing fit before the first chorus, the band dropped perfectly into the groove, waiting it out, but it was Lucinda who waved them off, perfectionist as ever, and insisted on taking it from the top. Aside from that, her whiskey voice has aged well. "Drunken Angel", also from Car Wheels set up "Pineola" from Sweet Old World. Back on track with the new record, she served up a simmering version of "West Memphis", prefaced with a shout out for the documentary on the West Memphis Three case. Visiting Car Wheels once again, "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" led to the first break.

The band departed and Lucinda picked up the old Martin J-45 for a tribute to her father, the poet Miller Williams, with her interpretation of his most famous poem, "Compassion", which lent a phrase as the title of her new LP. She stayed the course with the new, segueing into "When I Look At The World", a song that received one of its first live airings during an appearance at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur a few years back. Stuart Mathis came back out to lend a hand for a duet on "Lake Charles", and the full band returned, with David Sutton switching to a standup bass and lending a certain gravitas to "Are You Alright", from 2007's West. Switching gears, Essence (2001) provided 3 of the next four tracks, "Blue", "Are You Down", and "Out Of Touch", broken up with the new "Protection". What hasn't changed, after all these years, is that for every nook and cranny of American Music that she's explored, when it comes to the stage, she's all about the rock and roll, and as the night went on, she gave the band their fearsome head, standing back in the wings at one point to marvel. While seeming a little thrown by the totally seated audience, her coping strategy seemed to be to take it louder. And there were no complaints from attendees, although one can well imagine the shudders that ran through the theater staff at her suggestion of ripping out a couple of rows of seats. By this time, the band was hitting on all cylinders, and a rousing "Change The Locks", from her much loved self-titled LP, originally on Rough Trade, was just the ticket. Closing out the main set, it was back to West for "Unsuffer Me", with positively creeping bass from David Sutton,  the new "Everything But The Truth", and the title track of Essence, which got a loud "thank you" from the crowd, and highlighted drummer Butch Norton, before ending with the stomping "Honey Bee" from Little Honey.

While the audience was hooting and hollering for the band's return, the eye was drawn to the edge of the stage, where another amp was being set up. Turns out the evening's surprise was old hand Doug Pettibone joining the festivities. Sweet Old World's "Hot Blood" started the ball rolling, giving way to "Righteously", from World Without Tears, and finishing with a rambunctious "Joy". And still that wasn't enough, as the crowd refused to let it go. Out popped the band for a cover of AC/DC's "It's A Long Way To The Top", followed by Neil Young's already classic "Rockin' In The Free World", between which Lucinda observed: "I'm not your typical Americana artist." We'll let that stand as the last word.

Picking up opening duties on this tour was Alabama's own Kenneth Brian Band. As a study in post-Skynyrd Southern Rock, they met all the criteria, and it is meant as a compliment. While many write Skynyrd off as a bar band, there was always a heavy outsider element of being a long hair in the South, and a humanism to Van Zandt's writing. With an open dress shirt exposing a heavily tattooed torso, the connection was easily made. The stark originals caught the ear, but the feet started tapping with a sublime Freddie King cover, and from then on, he had the audience eating out of his hand. Final thoughts on the night: while the proliferation of technology and the Internet has broken the shackles for artists who never could have been heard before, the dark side lies amidst corporate sprawl, prefab bands, and identikit radio; hastening disappearing regional affiliation is one of the sadder parts of cultural evolution. Which is a terribly long winded way of saying that the most striking thing about both of the evening's acts, aside from the chops, is that concrete and comforting sense of place.
special guest Doug Pettibone

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