It’s been nine years since Lucinda Williams last appeared on Austin City Limits, a fact that’s all the more obvious when you note that this new two-hour set featured just one song from her Car Wheels taping. Even though Williams recently completed a five-night stand in Los Angeles—recreating five of her older albums song-for-song—she was here to focus on her recent albums, West and World Without Tears.
ACL producer Terry Lickona himself wasn’t sure how many times Williams had taped the show; at one point he said he couldn’t recall if this was her fourth or fifth performance (turns out it was her fifth if you count the dual Car Wheels tapings in 1998). “It’s hard to believe it’s been that long,” said Williams as she walked onstage brandishing a Gibson acoustic guitar.
Williams opened with the emotional wallop of “Everything Has Changed”, backed up only by Doug Pettibone on electric guitar and David Sutton on a standup bass played with a long bow. When she sang lines like “Faces look familiar but they don’t have names” or “towns I used to live in have been rearranged,” it was as close to confession as possible. New band members Chet Lyster (rhythm guitar, keyboards) and Butch Norton (drums) joined for the next song, “Rescue”, as Williams jettisoned her guitar to grip the mic stand with both hands while singing about self-reliance.
“Your hair’s gorgeous,” came a shout from the crowd, to which Lu smiled and said, “I have to say, I don’t mind having my hair or makeup done. I like that.” Hairstyle aside, she looked as rebellious as ever, dressed in black and wearing a skull-and-crossbones necklace. She had a couple of false starts—specifically on “Are You Alright?” (written “for my younger brother”) and “Fancy Funeral” (inspired by her mother’s passing)—but the singer quickly recovered both times, sounding more assured with each strum.
It was a far cry from the August 1998 taping where Williams expressed dissatisfaction with her performance. (“We just can’t get in the pocket, y’all,” she told the studio way back when.) Though that set was, by all accounts, a fine performance, she politely requested that taping be scrapped, and meticulously re-recorded the show four months later, delivering a solid performance that was released on DVD in 2005.
This time, her commentary was a little different: Williams introduced “Fancy Funeral” by saying her mother was a practical woman who “wouldn’t have wanted so much money to be spent on her behalf . . .but some of her family from Louisiana had other ideas.” It was obvious that the song touched her deeply. Nervous laughter from the crowd followed, and Williams went on to explain that her family had held a formal service in Monroe, Louisiana, and then a casual memorial in Arkansas, before realizing she might be talking too much. “Maybe we might want to edit some of this,” she suggested.
Things livened up on “People Talkin’”, which featured Pettibone on electric mandolin. His jazzy guitar on “Are You Down”—the only song played from 2001’s Essence—was a highlight, full of spacey notes that disappeared like tracers down a night highway. Staying in rock-star mode, the band delivered a knockout “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings”, dedicated to musical gods and goddesses “who’ve gone to Heaven or may be going there if they don’t settle down.” Williams played her Fender electric during the assault, which worked up drummer Norton (a founding member of the Eels) enough that, at the end, he had to remove his straw hat and wipe his sweaty brow.
Williams introduced the sexy “Honey Bee”, a rave-up recalling in its intensity Steve Earle’s cover of Nirvana’s “Breed”, saying it’s her favorite new song to play. “Oh my little honey bee, I’m so glad you stung me,” she sang in staccato verse, “now I got your honey, all over my tummy.” She didn’t forget about the blues, either, covering both the lively stomp of Fats Domino and the Delta swamp of Son Jackson. Before the taping ended, Williams reminisced about moving to Austin in 1974 (about the same time ACL started), when it was still a small town and she could become entranced by the Antone’s blues scene. “Folks like Angela Strehli, Lou Ann Barton, Derek O’Brien, and Keith Ferguson. . .” she said. Later, Williams spoke of a bar across the street from the studio, the Hole in the Wall, where she couldn’t get a gig to save her life. (“I’m serious, y’all.”)
Williams got even more serious with her encore, breaking into Thievery Corporation’s “Marching the Hate Machines (Into the Sun)”—a lilting anti-war song written by the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne—but she held off on a political rant. “This is one of those times we could all get together regardless of politics,” she offered. “We’re all of the same opinion regarding the international situation.”
Closing with the optimistic title track to West, Williams couldn’t help but note “so many memories, so many ghosts—it’s that bittersweet thing when I come back to Austin.” A lot has happened in Williams’ life and career since that 1998 taping. Yet, given her obvious comfort in her own skin these days, she’s too full of grace and promise for looking back.