Lucinda Williams has stories to tell.
She’s a restless soul never quite putting down roots, never fitting in. She lived in Austin and Nashville to get her songwriting chops honed. She moved to Los Angeles to immerse herself in the record business but couldn’t get a deal – not quite country enough, not quite rock enough. It took London based Rough Trade’s A&R man Rob Hurley to take a chance on her. The British label released her self titled album in 1988.
Ten years, three records and three labels later, she released Car Wheels On A Gravel Road in 1998. Embraced in the UK on the back of the burgeoning Americana scene, it proved accessible to a variety of audiences. The songs were concise and the narratives engaging. It hit a “right place, right time” sweet spot for a genre that still had a C&W cheesiness associated to it. There was an appetite in the UK for something more earthy, less “yeehaw”. Since then, she has consolidated that fanbase whilst expanding her stylistic repertoire. She’s even worked with Charles Lloyd and Bill Frisell on 2018’s Vanished Gardens, on the classic Blue Note jazz label, showing her fearless desire to explore and expand boundaries.
It is the twentieth anniversary of Car Wheels and it’s getting a celebratory dusting off by Williams. The LP had a tortured birth, Williams wrestling herself away from unsympathetic record labels. The recording process was protracted, working with Steve Earle who encouraged a more organic approach before eventually having the record produced by Roy Bittan of the E-Street Band.
As far as the evening went, think of this less of an album being played start to finish (which I’m not a fan of) and more of “an Evening with Lu”. We learned about her poet father Miller’s reaction to the title track’s portrayal of a little girl stuck in the middle of a family argument, about June Bug and Hurricane, thehard-drinkingg days in Austin with Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt and high jinks in the Metal Firecracker.
Williams was far more relaxed than I’ve ever seen her, centre-stage with a video screen showing home movies and photographs of the American South and the lovers and musicians that informed Car Wheels. Her voice was faultless, soulful and true. She altered the meter of the songs in some instances singing around the melody lines. This seemed to keep the material as fresh for her as it did for the audience.
The Buick 6 band were on stellar form. Long term drummer Butch Norton (recognisable by his huge hat), Bassist David Sutton and in particular, guitarist Stuart Mathis were true to the album where necessary, providing space to breath. Williams has a knack of picking fantastic guitarists and Mathis has supplanted Doug Pettibone in this regard. Joy was stretched out with a Hendrix snippet of Voodoo Chile whilst the sweet, almost doowop, of Still I Long For Your Kiss swung gorgeously.
The latter song was about as close to a potential cross over that the album delivers. It has a song structure which Williams acknowledged her writing doesn’t often feature. “There’s no bridge” she drawled, the oft heard criticism from A&R men as she got shunted from pillar to post in the 80s and 90s. This may explain why despite her quality, her songs have never translated as mega crossover hits.
Here’s a clip of Lucinda performing the title track back in the day:
After a short break, the band came back for selection of songs from other albums. She made it clear that she was disgusted by the current political climate on both sides of the Atlantic, which was obvious in the impassioned delivery of Foolishness and the acapella version of Faith and Grace. The religious right got it between the eyes on the closing Get Right With God, which ended as a double time gospel tear up.
By the time the band had taken flight for the encore version of Steal Your Love and Lucinda was nonchalantly sashaying at the side of the stage with a glass of red in her hand, three things had become apparent.
Firstly, the direct economy and the quality of Car Wheels songs shone through. Even on the songs where the band stretched out, there wasn’t an ounce of fat to be found. Secondly, the band served the songs and inhabited them in a way that only musicians of a certain emotional intelligence and skill set can.
And finally, Lucinda’s spirit endures. Half way through the gig, I thought “she should write a book”. At the end of the show, she confirmed that this is in the pipeline. If it speaks with the same truth, humour and humanity as Lucinda did at the Barbican, it will be quite a read.
I did warn you – she has stories to tell.