Propelled by a minimalist drummer, Lucinda Williams’ live rendition of “Are You Down” sounds like a folk-rock tune making overtures at loungey techno. Of course, Williams seemed to think it sounded like Brazilian jazz and “world music.” Claiming an out-of-character influence is usually endearing—even more so when it’s somewhat detached from reality—but when she went on to profess her love for metal and hard rock, it was the beginning of the end. “Some of it is very refreshing,” she said. “I’ve gone back and sort of rediscovered AC/DC. They seem down to earth compared to some of the stuff that’s out there now.”
You’d think that would make it okay for her guitarists to be enamored with Stevie Ray Vaughan and George Thorogood, but the combination was every bit as disruptive as it sounds. Halfway through the set, “Joy”, a Bettye LaVette cover, saw both guitarists soloing at the same time and totally ignoring both Williams and the composition.
That’s when I knew it was going to be a long night.
I didn’t know the half of it. The concert was a benefit for a local cancer research center, leading Williams to criticize bloated military spending in the face of inadequate research funding and health care—kind of like that old bumper sticker about the Air Force holding a bake sale, actually. I’m all for Bush bashing, but unfortunately, Williams delivered her pseudosermons with an eloquence befitting Lauren Caitlin Upton:
Exhibit A: “There’s money in this country. It’s here, it’s just not being divided properly. Y’all shouldn’t have to provide that money out of your pocket. Get it from those rich fuckin’ bastards.” Thanks, Kanye.
Exhibit B: “It shouldn’t be about politics, it should be about people.” Well, alrighty then. Hakuna matata!
To be fair, Williams is generally more articulate in song, but even lyrically she’s not infallible. “Come on,” a relatively new track from West, goes as far as rhyming “walk” and “talk,” an inane rhyme-scheme faux pas as unforgivable as “party” and “Bacardi” in hip-hop. The trite chord progression doesn’t help matters—with a little more speed and a floppy necktie, it could be an Avril Lavigne song. What’s more, Williams seemed to be flipping through a songbook throughout the entire night, an unusual handicap for a singer-songwriter type.
Williams somewhat redeemed herself with “Honeybee”, an unreleased song stuffed with reckless anthropomorphism that puts her quirkiness and general lack of shit-giving on the same level as Pixies frontman Black Francis. In general, though, she spent too much time fighting with her overbearing guitar players, who continued to heap blues runs upon her by the bushel, scaring off what little poignancy hadn’t already departed in a huff. I’d love to see Williams with a gentler band sometime; this one was intrusive enough to sink the whole set.
It wasn’t until the encore that the quieter aesthetic I was hungering for finally turned up: “Are You Alright”, a serene song that Williams dedicated to soldiers and their families, coaxed the rest of the band members into thick background vocals for the first time all night. One guitarist even traded those bluesy beedledeedles for background B3 chords on an otherwise woefully ignored keyboard. Even when the tempo picked up for “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”, the instrumentation remained mellow and Williams seemed more at home.
A few more covers closed out the night: Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, inexplicably missing the main melodic riff, and a Fats Domino bit drawn from a recent tribute project benefiting victims of Hurricane Katrina. Both were soggy with awkward political overtones—activism is important, but Williams should learn to pick her battles. The latter tune was particularly lackluster: After watching her squirm and struggle against bluesy guitar runs for the better part of an hour, a bona fide twelve-bar tune, complete with loping, Big Easy swagger, was the last thing I wanted to hear.
Even after the last song ended, Williams managed to squeeze in one last “love, peace, and revolution” moment before exiting stage right; I was amazed that she was able to get that much out without stammering. Even in an age where the best protest anthem the angry youth of America can come up with is “When the President Talks to God”, Williams doesn’t seem to be even remotely qualified to act as a figurehead for the revolution she’s talking about. Where’s Natalie Maines when you need her?