Early in her career, Lucinda Williams gained a reputation for being a perfectionist. It took her five years to make a record. Her live shows were rare and elusive – rumors of her being difficult abounded. But with each release she got better, both in her songwriting and delivery. It was always worth the wait.
As I’ve heard it, during the recording of her breakthrough record "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road," she terminated the relationship with long time guitarist – producer Gurf Morlix. Steve Earle stepped in to finish the production and the results were her best record to date, one with Steve’s fingerprints all over it. It launched her into the big time, selling lots of records, winning a Grammy and garnering critical praise as one of the best living American songwriters.
It also marked a turning point in her career.
With her next release, "Essence," there was less focus on death and the more up-tempo songs got a little harder-edged and gritty, while the bulk of the record still retained keen observations on loneliness and alienation, sung in a somewhat more sensual manner.
After "Essence," something happened that was completely unexpected – she released her next record in just 2 years.
"World Without Tears" was a mixed bag of visceral rockers and quiet ballads. She’s been touring a lot more in recent years, backed up by a new band featuring guitarist Doug Pettibone, bassist Taras Prodaniuk, and drummer Jim Christie at its core.
Now, just another 2 years later, she’s released a live double album, "Lucinda Williams Live At The Fillmore" and it features her touring band of the last few years with the mojo fully working.
Comprised mostly of songs from "World" and "Essence," it includes something from every full length record she’s put out with the exception of her debut "Ramblin.’"
Starting off with a couple of recent ballads, "Ventura" and "Reason To Cry," it doesn’t take long before things start to pick up. By the fourth track, "Out Of Touch," the band is in full jam mode. Throughout the disc, her voice alternates between a seductive drawl and an angry growl.
On the first disc, she captures the emotion behind tracks like "Blue" and "I Lost It," wrenching every bit of heartbreak and loneliness out of them and wearing it all on her sleeve. The second disc, for the most part, rocks out until the final three songs.
"I Lost It" appears on her second release, 1980’s "Happy Woman Blues" as a folksy little fiddle driven two step and was reworked as a Cajun flavored electric blues-rocker for "Car Wheels." On "Live," she plays the "Car Wheels" version.
The band is impressively tight and expressive. They skirt the line between stomping country, slow burn blues, and outright rock and provide a perfect backdrop for Lu to showcase her songs.
She covers a lot of territory – from her early obsession with death and religion on "Pineola," her lovelorn ballads like "Blue" and "Those Three Days," to her fascination with music and musicians on the arena rock – like "Real Live Bleeding Fingers." She even tosses in her attempt at politics, "Every Thing Is Wrong."
But with Lucinda, it always comes back to sad reflections on the state of the heart and the human experience. "Bus To Baton Rouge" sounded kind of innocuous on "Essence"; here, it’s rendered very soulfully giving it new levels of substance and displaying her powers of observation nicely.
If you’ve never seen Lucinda play live, this is a pretty good example of her shows. More than any other artist, she personifies what’s great about alt country as a genre. Based primarily in folksy country, she incorporates American roots music of all types into her sound flawlessly and ends up with a sound that’s distinct and original and yet somehow familiar at the same time.
It’s also nice to hear her cut loose with these songs, unlike the more tightly controlled versions you’ll find on most of her records, as good as they are.
Still, I can’t help wondering how long it will be before we get more new songs.