Williams’ night of rock and redemption
The death knell tolled early for Lucinda Williams at the Belly Up Tuesday night. As soon as I walked in, three songs late, a friend pulled me over and advised me that I “wasn’t going to like this one any better than the last time.”The “last time” was Williams’ appearance last summer at Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival, in which the gifted but reputedly erratic singer-songwriter showed little of the personality behind her songs of pained romance and longing.But the advice I received at the Belly Up was way premature. By the end of the night, Williams had entered a full engagement with the audience, resulting in two sets of encores. If she was setting out to prove that she does, indeed, have two distinct performance modes, Williams couldn’t have done a better job than in her two Aspen area appearances.The key on Tuesday night seemed to be Williams’ willingness to read the audience. Somewhere after the slow, deep “Fruits of My Labor” from her last album, “World Without Tears,” Williams got the idea that the nightclub setting of the Belly Up was a place suited for rocking.Smiling, communicative and focused, Williams obliged. More precisely, her stagehand, who seemed to be the one picking the set list by opening Williams’ thick songbook to the appropriate page, obliged. But it was Williams who set the tone, telling the crowd that she should have known this was a night and a place for louder and more up-tempo tunes. As Williams slammed through intense songs like “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings,” “Those Three Days” and “Joy,” and unleashed the inventive country-rock skills of guitarist Doug Pettibone, a palpable rapport developed between the band and the crowd. “Righteously,” with its tag line of “Just play me John Coltrane” sung in Williams’ signature slurred drawl, earned particular attention.The crowd properly engaged, Williams had room to play slower songs like “Essence,” which showed that she and her band didn’t need a fast tempo to reach maximum intensity.Williams and her three-piece band said good night early. But again, this was a premature pronouncement. They returned for a lengthy set of encores. And after the house music had come on and the fans had made for the doors, there was a stir from near the stage. Yes, Williams was up for more, including a slow Howlin’ Wolf blues tune that showed yet another facet of Williams.Consistency may not be her strong point. But on this extremely good night, Williams proved her abilities on stage can be the equal of her unparalleled songwriting and album-making skills.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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