Of all the hundreds of conceits and cliches of contemporary song, none is more ripe for retirement than the word "baby." But we'll allow one exception: Lucinda Williams can write and sing the word until she's blue in the face, and then let's beg her to sing it some more.
Because when Williams sings "bahaay-bahee," it inevitably comes out not sickly sweet or raunchy, but somewhere in the middle, as loaded with lust and longing as the complete works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez boiled down to two syllables.
Of course, with one of the most critically lauded albums of the year -- Car Wheels on a Gravel Road -- to her name, Williams could get away with a lot more than just the word "baby." As she proved tonight, the second night of a sold-out, two-night stand in Manhattan, she can play for more than two hours, with multiple encores, and say nothing more to her sold-out audience than mumbled song titles. She can surround herself with a half-dozen capable "guest" musicians seemingly content to lay down just enough of a rhythmic safety net to justify having instruments in their hands. All Williams needs are her incomparable songs and voice, and she earns enough to justify her accolades with enough change left for a new thesaurus of superlatives.
Make no mistake about the "buts," though. Williams has a hard-earned rep for killer live shows, but on the intensity scale tonight's offering barely registered. Her backing band -- Bo Ramsey and Kenny Vaughn on electric guitar, Richard Price on bass, Fran Breen on drums, David Mansfield on violin and singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale on acoustic guitar -- were mostly laid-back to a fault.
Vaughn and Ramsey stepped forward for an occasional brief (and to be fair, great) solo -- but if any of them sweated a drop on stage, it couldn't have been from exertion. For her part, Williams kept her thoughts and personality tightly locked within her songs.
In the course of her 20-year career, Williams has produced four albums -- one of them, her debut Ramblin', a collection of blues covers. Hardly prolific, but throughout her three original albums she's got enough classics and unmined hits to sustain Nashville through a 10-year writers' strike. Tonight's setlist bled Car Wheels on a Gravel Road dry. Most of the songs were not entirely ill-served by the band's easy pacing, either, allowing Williams to phrase each lyric to maximum effect: the Liz Phair-shaming evocation of sexual heat on "Right In Time" ("I lie on my back/and mooooan at the ceiling/oh! mah bahaay-bahee!"); her dips and drawls and lifts through her desperately heartfelt pleas on "Side of the Road" and "Passionate Kisses;" and her naked, bitter contempt on "Changed the Locks" and "Greenville." Williams' strong, clear enunciation left little room for doubt about what she was singing, and no room for doubting that she meant every word.
Ultimately, when a burst of primal energy was absolutely paramount for a song's execution ("Joy," "Hot Blood," and the roof-shaking climax of "Still I Long For Your Kiss"), her band did muster enough muscle from a hidden reserve to meet the occasion. And for the blues-heavy second encore, Williams brought Texas guitar-slinger Jimmie Vaughan out of the wings to help bring it all home. That her choice covers of Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Lil' Son Jackson sounded so right and of a piece with her own songs bodes well for her own legacy as a songwriter. But any other singer aspiring to cover Williams' "Right in Time" in the next 30 years better start practicing now -- those "bahaay-bahee"s don't come easy, and anything less than perfection would be a shooting offense.