Gritty Southern rebel off-loads her emotional freight in a brilliantly paced set

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Songs Of Experience

Lucinda Williams

SHEPHERD’S BUSH EMPIRE, LONDON

MONDAY MAY 5, 2003

When Lucinda Williams first came to London nearly 15 years ago to promote her eponymous third album, she was the most painfully nervous and self-conscious performer I had ever seen. The record was a standout of a bleak year (1988)?but live, with only an acoustic guitar for company, Lucinda was still shaping her own identity from the bare bones of the Delta blues and literary lore she was raised on.

Much has happened in the intervening years. She’s had enough Grammy Awards and critical plaudits to forestall any nerves and shore up confidence, and she’s released a collection of albums that have defined her world view?confirming her standing as the Queen of Vengeful Romance and Delta Gothic?but initially, tonight, the reality of Lucinda doesn’t quite live up to the legend.

Newcomers are surprised when she takes the Empire stage. A slight, unprepossessing figure in jeans, cowboy boots and black vest, she belies the years of hard graft, perfectionist determination and sacrifice that have gone into her music. There’s still a cautious reserve, part early tour nerves, at odds with the hard-drinking wildcat who she seems to become in interviews.

There’s a time to work and a time to play seems to be the message. Then she leads her subtle but awesomely primed three-piece band through the opening “Drunken Angel” from her 1998 masterpiece Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. As she offloads the song’s daunting emotional freight, the seriousness of Lucinda’s intent becomes clear.

Stage lights dance off her silver jewellery and dyed blonde hair as she details a torturous affair with a loveable wastrel who “passed out on the street” and passed on “to the other side”. “Ventura”, from the new album, is a striking contrast. She muses on foodstuffs and the lure of the ocean, but the pangs of unrequited love and former recklessness intervene?and suddenly there she is throwing up her confessions in the toilet bowl.

As she cherry picks gems from her most recent albums, the depth of Lucinda’s work and the reasons why she is acclaimed as one of the leading lights of American song become increasingly apparent. Her canon is a comparatively meagre one, but her songs describe a compelling landscape where the insoluble truths of her blues roots and the grit of personal experience have taken root.

Her Southern upbringing emerges in a number of unexpected ways?the giddy tumble of licentious imprecations that swagger through “Righteously” could be the work of a particularly bawdy preacher. She plays “Pineola”?a harrowing but magnificent encounter with the mundanity of death. By this time she has swapped her acoustic for an electric guitar and as she trades clangorous riffs with Doug Pettibone, it’s like Flannery O’Connor meets Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Lucinda has fearlessness in abundance. She may be on the far side of 50 now, but her songs broker no compromises with fate, respectability or complacency. The passing of time does not change the intensity of how life is lived or her music is felt.

She paces the set brilliantly, holding the band in reserve until they can let fly on the deranged “Atonement” and the anthemic “Real Live Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings”, a hymn to life lived to the full. She praises Chrissie Hynde and, when a heckler ignites her anger, feeds it into “Changed The Locks”, a heroic kiss-off to an ex-lover. She revisits the primal wellspring of Skip James for “Killing Floor Blues” and castigates George Bush before “American Dream”.

The diffident introduction is forgotten, and by the close it’s obvious that with Lucinda the Southern rebel tradition is in safe hands.