Touring behind the 20th anniversary of her country/roots rock masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams played New York City’s Beacon Theater on Wednesday (Nov. 7). While seeing a seasoned road warrior like Williams at the intimate, plush Beacon Theater is always a delight, the show was particularly historic – never before has Lucinda performed Car Wheels songs with Roy Bittan and Steve Earle, both producers on the album, on stage at the same time. The E Street Band’s Bittan manned the organ throughout the night, and Earle popped out to provide harmonica support and vocals on a few tunes.
But as much as the songs on Williams’ 1998 magnum opus cut you to the core, the music was just half of what made her anniversary concert so special. On a normal tour stop, you’d hardly call Lucinda voluble. But playing her career-changing album start-to-finish seems to have pushed Williams into a more reflective place (and perhaps her in-depth retrospective earlier this year with Billboard helped). Prior to each track, Lucinda, warm and self-effacing, went into detail about the genesis of the song — which frequently meant sharing stories of “unrequited love” and the complications that come with that.
“Some people get uncomfortable when you write songs about them,” Williams mused while introducing “Greenville” as a song about a “disastrous love affair” in the ’90s. “But too bad,” she concluded with a shrug.
Without giving away the full story away, the meatiest anecdote preceded “Metal Firecracker.” Admitting she felt “shy” telling the story so she’d just “blurt it out,” Lucinda detailed an ill-advised road romance with a bassist that lead to a live-in boyfriend tearing apart a hotel room; she concluded the tale with a heavy sigh and a very Southern, “Bless his heart.”
But not all of Car Wheels‘ song are about messy love. “Drunken Angel” is about the talented but self-sabotaging Blaze Foley (“He liked to drink – a lot” Lucinda said), who is the subject of the new Ethan Hawke-directed Blaze, a film she heartily recommended to the audience. Ever generous, she also urged the crowd to check out “artists under the radar y’all should listen to” such as Randy Weeks, who wrote the sole cover song on Car Wheels (“Can’t Let Go”).
Her deadpan intro to “I Lost It” was especially hilarious. She revealed the song title came as an exasperated response to seeing so many “I found it” bumper stickers in Texas from the Campus Crusade for Christ back in the ’80s — “which annoyed the hell out of me,” she deadpanned. Clearly, Williams in conversation is as incisive and bullshit-free as in her songwriting.
Musically, the night was scorching, but no surprises there – Lucinda Williams and Buick 6 play like a seasoned bar band fronted by a poet laureate, coarse and transcendent at the same time. “Joy” was stretched out with a lick of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and a bluesy outro; during the post-Car Wheels portion of the show, she inserted a bit of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” into 2003’s “Righteously.” At the end of the night, she wrapped with an emotionally charged version of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.” Few artists other than the Boss can pull off the mixture of earnestness and authenticity “The Rising” requires, but Williams nailed the wounded hopefulness of the ecstatic rock hymn.
These days, a little rock n’ roll ecstasy can go a long way. And in New York on Wednesday night, Williams was as heartfelt and reassuring as Hank’s voice on the radio.