stepped onstage at the Pageant and began a two-and-a-half-hour, two-dozen-song chronological hopscotch through her career with a characteristically quiet welcome: "Hey everybody. It's the last show of the year for us. We're in a good mood -- ready to rock and have a good time."
Alone with an acoustic guitar, dressed in black from porkpie hat to leather jacket to jeans tucked into knee-high motorcycle boots, she looked a little, it must be said, like Tom Waits circa Closing Time. Williams commenced with "Motherless Children," from her obscure debut LP, Ramblin', then was joined by her backing band (openers Buick 6, absent guitar virtuoso Doug Pettibone) for another cut from that record, Robert Johnson's "Rambling on My Mind."
Is it significant that Ramblin' was released in 1979 (on, of all labels, Smithsonian/Folkways)? It is, this being the 30th anniversary of that auspicious occasion. Is it significant that Williams' next album, Happy Woman Blues, which on this evening was represented by its title cut, came out a mere year later (likewise on Folkways)? It is, because after that folksy foray, it was eight long years until Williams next released a record.
That said, on Saturday it was about nine seconds between "Happy Woman" and a triple play from Lucinda Williams, Williams' breakthrough on Rough Trade.
In some ways a show like this one could be pigeonholed (or dismissed) as a Greatest Hits Retrospective, a touch-all-the-high-points tiptoe through the tunesmith's tulips. But see, Lucinda Williams doesn't got tulips, and those big black boots sure as fuck don't tiptoe. If there was any doubt, Wililams observed partway through that it was "interesting" to consider the "process," the "progress," that carried her (and us) from back there to here. From the tentative (if jaunty) rootsiness of the two early discs to the evocative narratives that came later, on Lucinda Williams, Sweet Old World and the critically anointed Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, to the harrowing traverse of the wild darkness that was Essence and World Without Tears and then out into the shimmer of 2007's West and last year's Little Honey.
And in some ways this show could be framed as a tent revival -- the visceral performance, the worshipful throng. But how the hell, now that you mention it, does one characterize the range of humanity that clusters under Williams' tent: young, old, lean, lardy, gimme-hat hoosier, mulleted lesbian, tortoiseshell-spectacled intellectual, ponytailed hipster, pale and/or pierced, loner (who, moi?), and...yes...Beatle Bob (God love him)?
Of course, the answer is, simply: you don't. Williams and the band careen through "Out of Touch," "Essence," "Real Live Bleeding Fingers," Righteously." The guitars shriek; your ears ring. The drummer is a huge, goateed beast (and he's wearing shorts!). The bassline throbs off the stage and up through your shoes. The hoosiers, professors and lesbians, the hats, the ponytails, the mullets, sway.
And then you all burst together out the other side, to, aptly, the searing accompaniment of the desperate "Unsuffer Me":
1. Motherless Children
2. Rambling on My Mind (Robert Johnson)
3. Happy Woman Blues
4. Crescent City
5. Big Red Sun Blues
6. Side of the Road
7. Little Angel, Little Brother
10. I Lost It
11. Lake Charles (by request)
12. Still I Long for Your Kiss
14. Out of Touch
16. Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings
18. Unsuffer Me
19. Come On
20. Tears of Joy
21. Honey Bee
22. Nothing in Rambling (Memphis Minnie)
24. It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock n' Roll)
Chet Lyster (guitar/keys)
David Sutton (bass)
Butch Norton (drums/percussion)
Eric Schermerhorn (guitar)
At a little after nine o'clock Saturday night,