red lights


Two guitars and one songbird

Lucinda Williams
Pabst Theatre
Milwaukee, WI
Mar. 7, 2006
Lucinda Williams Lucinda Williams

Story by Tony Bonyata
Photos by Phil Bonyata

Last Tuesday evening the Southern songstress Lucinda Williams quietly ambled out on the ornate stage of Milwaukee's grandest dame of venue's The Pabst Theater with only her acoustic guitar and guitarist Doug Pettibone. While Williams' full-band performances are well-known for their shotgun wedding of earthy country, floorboard-loosening juke-joint blues and high-octane rock & roll, her stripped-down show that night offered her audience a rare, intimate glimpse into this mesmerizing artist and her songs.

With the emphasis on Williams' honest and rough-hewn voice her Southern Gothic tales of lost love, death, hard drinking, despair and, ultimately, hope took on even deeper meaning. Clad in denim bell-bottoms, pigeon-toed cowboy boots and shock of sandy grey hair, the singer looked as natural and welcoming as the first dandelion of Spring. The set was equally spread between her last three studio albums - 2003's World Without Tears, 2001's Essence and, arguably, her quintessential effort Car Wheels on a Gravel Road from 1998. In addition, the Louisiana-bred musician unveiled a handful of newer numbers that, compositionally, proved every bit as strong as her most beloved material.

The show opened with the harrowing "Greenville," where Pettibone, perched atop a stool for the majority of the evening, augmented Williams' aching vocals and acoustic strumming with rich harmonies and sparse electric guitar phrasings. "This is a folk show," Williams commented in between numbers, "It's how I started out playing 35 years ago." She continued,"We're presenting these songs the way they were originally written," before the duo launched into a spirited version of "Pineola," a tale of a southern boy who committed suicide that Williams knew when she was younger.

While Lucinda was definitely the star of this show, Pettibone proved to be the perfect addition to this simple pairing - adding a poignant lap steel guitar and honey-sweet harmonies to "Lake Charles," beautiful electric guitar to the new number "Tears of Joy" and the defiant folk-rocker "Those Three Days," as well as injecting a Dylan-esque harmonica to the introspective country balladry of "Blue." Breaking into what she described as "hip-billy" - a melding of hip-hop vocal delivery on a revved-up hillbilly rocker - Williams gruffly spat out the lyrics to "Righteously," a hit from her last studio album World Without Tears. While this proved to be the one number of the evening where the soul of her voice was void, the up-tempo rhythm of the number did add a welcome sense of urgency into the set.

At one point she admitted that she was at last happy and in love, but also, only half-jokingly, added that she feared that this new sense of happiness might affect her creativity. Well, the new songs that she and Pettibone showcased were definitely proof that great art doesn't always have to come directly from pain and suffering, as witnessed on the uplifting "Tears of Joy" as well as another fresh number that successfully managed to channel the spirit of John Lennon.

If this rare stripped-down performance proved anything, it was that Lucinda Williams is not only one of the best songwriters alive today, but also one of our greatest performing artists. With her gift of storytelling, songcraft, stage presence and the voice of a Southern angel, this uncompromising talent will undoubtedly join the ranks of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn in future tomes of country music heroines. As far as I'm concerned, however, she's already there... smack dab in the first damn chapter.

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