November 21, 2008
Too country for rock and too blues for country, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams toiled for nearly two decades before finding acclaim in 1994 with a Grammy for songwriting – only to have commercial success continue to elude her. 1998 saw an end to all that with the release of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, which finally won the mainstream market’s appreciation of her as an artist and performer in her own right. Though undoubtedly not predetermined, Car Wheels was in effect a perfectly timed coup in a zeitgeist which was clamoring for all things alt.country. And while the crossover airplay and sales would eventually wane, that album ensured if nothing else, Williams’ fan base would permanently include the NPR set going forward.
Touring in support of her latest release, Little Honey, Williams performed Saturday night at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. Effectively an alternative country doyenne at this point, Williams’ trademark is a drawl two packs deep and full of regret, yet Little Honey contains what is arguably some of her most spirited and light-hearted work to date. And though her set leaned heavily on selections from that album (including “Well Well Well,” “Honey Bee,” Tears Of Joy,” “Real Love” and “Little Rock Star” – the latter two of which featured Matthew Sweet and Susana Hoffs onstage supplying backing vocals), she offered highlights from her entire catalogue, including a smoldering take on “Essence” from her 2001 album of the same name.
An enthusiastic, hootin’-and-hollerin’ crowd made certain Williams knew she was among friends, and she replied in kind with performances that didn’t leave them wanting. But after repeatedly topping herself with stops at “Can’t Let Go,” “Changed The Locks,” “Real Live Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings” and a show-stopping “Unsuffer Me,” she unfortunately seemed to run out of steam. The show decelerated to the close of the main set and through the bulk of the encore, which contained a somewhat limp pass at Buffalo Springfield’s “Stop, Hey What’s That Sound.” A dedication to President-elect Barack Obama of a cover of AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” was somewhat redeeming – if only because that’s a bit of advice Williams, who’s hewn a career from a long road of her own, is definitely qualified to give.