Lucinda Williams Proves She's Worth The Wait - Rolling Stone
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Lucinda Williams Proves She’s Worth The Wait

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.

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