Wearing a black sleeveless top and blue jeans, the shaggy blonde-haired Lucinda Williams took the stage with a big smile and rocked through a two-hour set. The Louisiana native announced that this was the first gig of her new tour and seemed genuinely refreshed and in good spirits. She bantered with the audience and praised her band and crew, even bestowing cheek kisses to the guitar tech and drummer after noteworthy moments.
Buick 6 opened the show with a set of instrumentals that featured guitarist Doug Pettibone’s raucous electric guitar work. The band covered both The Ventures (“Wipe Out”) and Led Zeppelin (“Black Dog”) as well as several other tunes that served as a slow burning fuse to those awaiting Williams’ appearance. The crowd applauded Buick 6 appreciatively, but was obviously in attendance to see the enigmatic Williams. As the show began at 8 pm on a Sunday night, there was a certain amount of impatience as the age of the audience (most with some gray in their hair and probably in their 50s, the same as Williams) suggested most people had to work in the morning and did not want to stay up too late.
Buick 6 stayed on to back up Williams and kept the volume loud and the pace energetic. Williams, however, was always in command. She joked that when “Mama spoke, the boys jumped,” but it was true. She always maintained control over what was happening on stage.
Williams played an assortment of guitars, but the main emphasis was on her expressively sultry voice. She sang a selection of songs from her old records, most notably Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Essence, and West. She performed stellar versions of “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” and “Come On” that reeked with bold sensuality. Most noteworthy were the new songs Williams said would appear on her forthcoming release in September. She asked the crowd to vote on whether one untitled song should appear on the new record (they approved), but the new song that garnered the most enthusiastic reception was one called “Little Rock ‘n’ Roller”. Williams dedicated the tune to the new (unnamed) artists that were talented but may lack the understanding necessary to endure in the rock business. Williams coyly hinted that she herself had suffered from the same problems when starting out, and the song’s strong lyrics (“You seem to have a death wish”) appear to be directed to Amy Winehouse.
In many ways, Williams really is the direct precursor to Winehouse. Their music shares roots in R&B, while both artists possess a dangerous and incendiary genius. Judging by this concert, Williams seems to have emerged unscathed from the demons that used to torment her. She sang with an easygoing grace. The edginess that once made her concerts dangerous was no longer present. It was clear Williams was having a good time and enjoyed performing to an appreciative audience. This was not always true of the mercurial Williams. The last time she played in Iowa City, about 10 years ago, she was rambunctious and difficult. It was unclear if she was drunk and going to walk off stage at any given moment just out of spite.
Things were not as precarious this time. The opposite was true. After Williams finished her set she asked, “Is it that time already” and told the crowd not to worry, she would play a long encore, which she did. She gave a solid performance from beginning to end. The night ended with the entire crowd on its feet as the houselights went on. They knew the night was over, but despite work in the morning, they didn’t want it to end.