Review: Emotional extremes – Lucinda Williams at Belly Up Aspen
August 23, 2012
ASPEN – I made a mighty effort to get an interview with Lucinda Williams in advance of her appearance Wednesday night at Belly Up Aspen. Three confirmed times, however, didn’t result in actually having a conversation with the singer-songwriter. (Though Williams, bless her, did leave a voice mail on my cell phone, which will never be deleted, at least not intentionally: “I’m sorry about the mix-up with everything. I jes’ been burning the candle out here on the road, slept in today.”)
Williams being a profound talent – Time magazine named her America’s Best Songwriter in 2002, and it’s arguable that her best work has been made since then – I had even gone to the trouble to half-form the first question I would ask her. It would have been something about being able to hit the extremes on both sides of the emotional spectrum, the anguished and the joyous.
A short way into her Belly Up gig, Williams answered my question by singing, back to back, “World Without Tears” and “Born to Be Loved.” These were the extremes of the human experience, rendered with Williams’ signature directness, boldness and intelligence.
“World Without Tears” is about the inevitability of pain and sorrow; “Born to Be Loved” about the certainty of grace. In the first, Williams made brilliant use of simple metaphor: “If we lived in a world without tears/ … How would broken find the bones” she sang in her slow, clear drawl. Williams isn’t dreaming of a world that’s empty of tears; she’s telling us that pain is a plain fact of life – accept it. “Born to Be Loved” is the very opposite: “You weren’t born to suffer/ And you weren’t born for nothing.”
Those two songs pretty much covered the full range, but there were many more, almost of all of them memorable, thanks to Williams’ writing skills, a voice that oozes out experience and knowingness, and the supremely tasty contributions of Doug Pettibon, Williams’ longtime guitarist and an apparent fan favorite.
“Joy” was Williams at her most ferocious and economical: when she tells her lover “You took my joy, I want it back,” you can imagine the quick but bloody encounter that’s to come. “Righteously,” part of a three-song encore, was another in a long line of songs in which Williams tells her partner exactly what she needs. It features Williams’ best line ever: “Just play me John Coltrane.”
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Williams goes through no histrionics to express herself onstage. She recognizes that she has already done the hard work of exposing herself in the writing process. The words, along with occasionally telling the crowd how glad she was to have them listen, are enough.
Williams included three cover songs in Wednesday’s show. Bob Dylan’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” which would seem to be right in her wheelhouse, never hit the heights that seemed possible. But a take on the Allman Brothers’ “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” demonstrated that Williams may have missed her calling; with her phrasing, emotional depth and strength of voice, she would make an extraordinary blues singer. Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” was unexpected – you don’t associate Williams with boisterous rock anthems – but it was cool to see her waving her arms and letting go like that.