Lucinda Williams has been compared to Hank Williams (by Elvis Costello, no less), and while the comparison might seem a bit frivolous at first, it holds some truth. Like Mr. Williams, Miss Williams doesn’t just sing about the South, she is the South. When she sings a lyric, her drawl sounds like how a hot summer afternoon down in the Bible Belt feels — long, sultry, and ready to explode with repressed energy. And if you’ve ever seen Lucinda Williams live, you’ve probably noticed that her every mannerism reveals her southern heritage, her demeanor a mixture of bravado and nonchalance. But while the Hank Sr. comparison is apt, Lucinda Williams might also be described as William Faulkner with a guitar, for her words capture the inexplicable essence of the Southern mindset. Go into any dive down in the South and you’ll see the characters described in her songs — the self-destructive losers, the heartbroken romantics, the restless dreamers — and you’ll also see that Williams knows the peculiar idiosyncrasies of Southerners. Moreover, her songs are like travel guides, guiding the listener along lonely highways and dilapidated towns that possess that eerie Southern emptiness.
Live from Austin, TX: Lucinda Williams, a new DVD from the Austin City Limits series, captures Williams in all her Southern splendor. The episode was recorded in December of 1998, nearly half a year after the release of the album that would take Williams from respected songwriter to bona fide icon, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. For fans who discovered Williams during this era, there is much here to enjoy: the title track, “Right in Time”, “Drunken Angel”, “Greenville”, “Metal Firecracker”, “Still I Long for Your Kiss”, “Lake Charles”, “Can’t Let Go”, “Jackson”, and “Joy”. Without doubt, this concert shows why Williams is worthy of her acclaimed status, and also illustrates why Car Wheels is such a seminal album in the rise of alt-country; there’s not a dud on the LP, and seeing Williams perform the songs live makes the already simmering songs more immediate.
This 16-song, one-hour-and-15-minute concert, however, reaches further back into Williams’ career, featuring songs from Sweet Old World and the eponymous Lucinda Williams. Hearing her perform earlier the earlier songs, such as “Pineola”, “Passionate Kisses”, “Sweet Old World”, and “Something About What Happens When We Talk”, it’s easy to see why she was known as an acclaimed songwriter prior to reaching her now goddess status; Williams, to an obscene degree, has an amazing gift for both narrative and poetic imagery. In “Sweet Old World” for instance, Williams is able to combine the two, distilling the complex subject of suicide into a few powerful images: “See what you lost when you left this world the sound of a midnight train, wearing someone’s ring ” The song is made even more moving seeing Williams perform it under the soft, hazy lights of the ACL stage, small flickering bulbs dancing in the background. Such songs hint at the eventual shift in songwriting technique Williams would take on later releases, most notably Essence, when her songs increasingly focused on simple but profound images.
The real treasure of this DVD, however, is the professionalism Williams and her band bring to the performances. As Williams herself concedes in the concert, she isn’t a musician so much as a songwriter, but she does know enough to lay down the essentials of a genius tune. She also knows that surrounding yourself with impeccable talent is crucial. For this performance, her backing band includes, among the other essentials, three guitarists, and a hammond and accordion player. Together, they prove how transcendent a small group of musicians can sound when each player is skilled, inspired, and willing to play in the interest of the song. In “Greenville”, for instance, most of the musicians recede into the background and provide only the occasional note so as not to overwhelm the folk simplicity of Williams’ heartbroken lullaby. Likewise, in “Something About What Happens When We Talk”, Kenny Vaughn gets more mileage out of a few choice notes than Eddie Van Halen got out of his entire career. On other tracks, however, the musicians go into a possessed frenzy. For example, on “Joy”, guitarist John Jackson springs from the bluesy stomp of the chorus into a searing slide solo that feels like the 100-degree heat of the French Quarter in August — thick and nasty.
Altogether, Live from Austin, TX is required viewing for any fan of Lucinda Williams or music with true soul and sincerity. Not only are each of the songs classics, but the concert documents a critical period in Williams’ career — the moment when she was about to leave the mortal world of the music underground and enter the pantheon of great American songwriters. As the show proves, Lucy is capable of handling it all with cocksure southern bravado, never losing her cool or the mean groove.