Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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MSN Music News

Lucinda Williams: Faith Restored

Onstage, the Louisiana blues poet rocks as hard as ever

The short of it is that I went to see Lucinda Williams March 11 hoping against hope that she'd reconvert me, and she did. The longer version is that I wasn't hoping all that hard. I know it's different for the appreciative over-30 couples who crammed New York's 1,400-capacity Webster Hall two nights running, but whether I relate to Williams the person isn't an issue for me. Respect and admiration aren't issues either--that I'd never fully warmed to 2008's subdued Little Honey and was up-and-down about her equally atmospheric new Blessed didn't stop me from recognizing how well-made and well-played they were. I just wanted to feel the admiration a little deeper down, and to find out what had become of her show as her studio aesthetic shaded over toward ambient Americana. The surprising answer, due in part to how robustly L.A.-based guitarist Val McCallum dominated her efficient little three-piece, is that she's rocking as hard as ever--maybe harder. But the unflagging two-hour set also answered questions I'd never thought to ask.

Williams' setlists change, but the Friday show I caught happened to kick off with one of my favorite Lucinda songs, the eager "I Just Wanted to See You So Bad" from 1988, and followed with what I took for a great old Muddy Waters jam I couldn't place and turned out to be the 31-year-old "Happy Woman Blues." The same song sounded just as good by the 26-year-old Williams when I returned to it at home, although not as "guileless" as I thought back then--no one as craft-conscious as Williams is, is ever guileless. Case in point: Coming off that setup, Little Honey's "Tears of Joy" turned into the classic love blues I hadn't previously understood it to be. Nor was this the only newish song enriched by its context--Blessed's "Copenhagen" and "Convince Me" both convinced me, and the matched humanistic litanies "Born to Be Loved" and "Blessed" conveyed the sense of sincerity that makes declarations of faith signify.

Clearly the strategy here was the usual: Sell the new material with oldies. But just as establishing "Tears of Joy" as a classic blues by preceding it with a Muddy Waters rewrite elevated that strategy, so did the way Williams sequenced what she firmly yet apologetically slotted as "beautiful loser" songs, three in a row: the undeniable "Pineola" from 1992 to the staggering "Drunken Angel" from 1998 to the kick-ass Blessed opener "Buttercup," which I'd distrusted before she convinced me she was onto the beautiful-loserscam. Similarly, by elevating the usual audience thank you with an unexpected "Especially in these hard times I appreciate your digging into your pockets and buying a ticket," she put an extra edge on "Born to Be Loved."

Then, two thirds through, the sell was over. Except for "Blessed" opening the encore to the pin-drop attention it deserved, it was sure-shot after sure-shot, with McCallum, who knows his blues and also knows his Black Crowes, given space to rev the crowd, rest the star, and show off his real live bleeding fingers. "Essence," "Atonement," "Unsuffer Me"--indubitable all, and every one post-Car Wheels--"Changed the Locks," from 1988 again--all-set peak. Climaxing the regular set: Little Honey's "Little Honey," which did in fact climax the set. Encore: "Blessed," "Joy" and "Get Right With God," which I once again mistook briefly for a Muddy Waters find. Must be something to that.

Williams seemed perfectly comfortable with the few pounds she'd gained since I last laid eyes on her, and topped off her bohemian black with tiny sunglasses I thought oddly unbecoming. It was almost as if, at 57--a number she speaks aloud in "Copenhagen"--she thought it only fitting to trade in honey-pie on battle-axe. Smart move, especially in a strong woman who sings as loud as ever even if I wish she'd get her tongue around more consonants.

Done with losers, she is said to be happily married at long last, and on the evidence she's committed as well to her lifework of personalizing the blues idiom she loves, and to adapting her own poetry to its idiom. In the studio, maybe she's exploring texture, but she knows what live is for. And though she'll always be an unashamed aesthete, maybe she finally knows what life is for, too. Her parting words surprised me more than anything else in a night full of pleasant surprises: "Peace, love and revolution! Workers' rights!" Bless her.

MSN Music, March 16, 2011