It was all about the honey. Sipping straight honey from a cup on stage up by her tiny Fender guitar amp ("It's the only thing that keeps me from coughing," she said, sounding like a character from a Tennessee Williams play), Lucinda Williams and her backing band, Buick 6, delivered two straight hours of pure, refined, thick aural sweetness last night at the VooDoo Lounge at Harrah's Casino.
After walking out on stage at ten minutes after 9 in high heels and hip-hugging jeans and kicking out "I Just Wanted to See You So Bad," a jaunty, barely twangy pop song about innocent longing from her 1988 self-titled solo album, the 56-year-old smiled and addressed the crowd. "It's only Wednesday noiiaaht," she said, giving the vowel in night a full Louisiana makeover. "I'm impressed." (Never mind that the crowd, mostly older and filling barely three-fourths of the room, was anything but impressive.) "It's Wednesday noiaaht, and we're at a casino. This is cool."
21 songs and nearly two hours later, Williams would again thank us for coming, saying she knew that we'd driven 20 minutes outside of town to come to the show. Seriously, she said that. It was ridiculous. After the glorious, pitch-perfect show she and her band delivered, we in the crowd were not only thanking her, we were just plain thankful to be alive.
The set list was a fan's dream. Early in the show, she announced that this year marks the 30th anniversary of her first album, Ramblin', an album of folk, blues, country and traditional covers put out by Smithsonian Folkways in 1979. She didn't reach back to that album, though, until the end of the show, saving "Motherless Children" for the first song of the encore and playing it solo, just herself and her fingerpicked acoustic.
For the second song of the evening, she reached back almost that far, plucking "Happy Woman Blues," the title track from her second album, also on Folkways, then leaped forward a couple of decades to play two off her undeniable masterpiece, Car Wheels On a Gravel Road: "I Lost It" and "Concrete and Barbed Wire."
She reached back again for a rousing, rocking version of her cover of Emmylou's "Crescent City" (originally on the '88 record), then got slow and sweltering with "Tears of Joy" from her latest, Little Honey. That last one featured a mighty, soulful guitar solo from Eric Schermerhorn, who has replaced longtime Lucinda/Buick 6 axman Doug Pettibone, and who looks kind of like an elongated version of tennis pro John McEnroe.
Schermerhorn left the stage, drummer Butch Norton got quiet, and bassist David Sutton got out his bowed upright for the next few songs, the slow-jam portion of the evening, which, despite being quieter, held the audience no less rapt. Beginning with "Everything Has Changed" and going through "Memphis Pearl" and "Jackson," the introspective part of the show built to a fist-pumping climax on "Fruits of My Labor," with its message of rock affirmation: Take the glory any day over the fame.
During this portion, I crept from the fifth row out on the floor back to the bathroom, and I don't know what angels were at the soundboard last night, but, man, the whole room sounded great. I am not a stickler for sound, but witnessing a concert of songs this good already played by monster musicians and mixed to audiophile-level quality -- damn. Even Lucinda was pleased: "This is a great-sounding room. And if mama's happy, everyone's happy."
Speaking of mama, Lucinda's voice, all doped up on honey, was without a doubt, the most powerful instrument on stage. Though she frequently smiled between songs, when she sang her face remained virtually expressionless. She looked out with her heavily eyelinered eyes, and from behind her deadpan facade came tides of her famous, drawling alto, as if summoned from some deep, inner source. The Southern twang and curl in her voice, coupled with the subject matter of a lot of her songs, gives her this kind of feisty, drunken-older-lady-at-a-bar persona. But you don't realize until you've seen her run through two hours of songs -- boldly saving the throat-pounder, blues-howler "Joy" for second to last in the first set before comign out and covering Rod Stewart and AC/DC in the encore -- what a tremendous instrument she has.
And speaking of instruments, that Buick 6 ... Chops aside, I wasn't sure whether to covet the positions held by guitarists Shermerhorn and Chet Lyster (i.e., virtuosos making a living playing with a great American singer-songwriter) or merely to covet the guitars they get to play on. The two busybody guitar techs brought them both a new, beautiful, shiny, vintage, probably outrageously expensive guitar for just about every song. "It's like guitar porn," remarked Gaslights frontwoman and die-hard Lucinda admirer Abigail Henderson, who was there with her husband, Chris Meck.
Last time Lucinda was in town (when was that, October '08?), Henderson and Meck lured the lady and her band over to Davey's Uptown for some after-show drinks. I'm sure they were hoping for a reunion last night, and I hope they got it. As for me, I ate a giant Snickers ice cream bar and went to bed at midnight. Anticlimactic? Sure. But what else can you do after a show like that?
Actually, now that I think about it, I always could've just died...
I Just Wanted to See You So Bad
Happy Woman Blues
I Lost It
Concrete and Barbed Wire
Tears of Joy
Everything Has Changed
Fruits of My Labor
Still I Long for Your Kiss
Little Rock Star
Out of Touch
Changed the Locks
Every Picture Tells a Story
It's a Long Way to the Top