This show has made me run the gamut of emotions.
I started with being miffed, uncomfortable and annoyed.
This had nothing to do with Williams and everything to do with the first support. I get that Daniel Champagne is a hit in the Spiegeltent and at festivals everywhere. I hear he’s the future of music. I get that, technically, he is astonishing. He manages to make noises with a guitar that are really quite extraordinary using the body, the neck and even the tuning keys to change key and change direction. At 21, he’s a prodigious talent and he’s more than welcome to divert my attention for 1 or 2 minutes in Pitt Street Mall.
It’s not that he’s not good, it’s just that I found what he does to be totally alienating. He did three songs that went for about 7 minutes each. All instrumental trickery, wandering in and out of the spot, singing unmiked, then back to the mike and stopping for elongated pauses that had the crowd applauding – half because they thought he’d finished, and the other half seemingly to encourage him to.
I have since asked myself what I reacted against. A couple of factors are at play. Firstly, he’s not the first person to use a guitar for percussion and other effects. It’s been done before. He certainly does it very well, but it’s just not new or interesting. Certainly not to me. Secondly instrumentals, like any music, require structures that people can easily grasp. Dramatic shifts from almost rock licks to delta blues and then long passages of showing off – all in the one song – just didn’t seem to hang together in any kind of musical or stylistic narrative. Thirdly, those long pauses are a luxury a new artist simply can’t afford. If we don’t know you, we’re not going to be that into you, so what you consider dramatic is in danger of being interpreted as self-involved by the outsider. Pick your audience, make it sharp and bring us along. We’re not hanging on your every note. We’re waiting for Lucinda. Maybe it was the crowd on the night. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood. But I wasn’t the only one. Overheard snippets were as bemused and largely disengaged as I was.
To mess with my emotions even more, we were then introduced to the wonderful Eilen Jewell. I didn’t know I knew any of her songs until she played the excellent ‘High Shelf Booze’ which local radio in Sydney had picked up over Christmas. Idaho-born and now living in Cambridge Massachusetts, Jewell has a fresh and sweet style that belies her mischievous sense of humour (in ‘Bang Bang Bang’, Cupid is a six-shooting two-year-old with bad aim) and her often dark and gritty lyrics (‘Santa Fe’, ‘Queen of the Minor Key’).
Voice-wise, those who know Lanie Lane would recognise some of the fifties-style sound, but Jewell’s influences are much broader encompassing gospel, honky tonk and rockabilly. So when she kicks into these modes, she and the band really kick. Jewell has a number of releases but concentrated on two in this set: Sea of Tears and Queen of The Minor Key. Highlights for me were the aforementioned ‘Santa Fe’ and the title track from Sea of Tears, as well as ‘Heartache Boulevard’. It was also a stroke of genius to cover Normie Rowe’s ‘Shakin’ All Over’ as the final song, totally winning over a crowd left somewhat disgruntled by Champagne. She already had us, but her take on this classic was the clincher.
And now to Lucinda Williams. Fully engaged after Jewell, out comes the legend lady herself and I had a couple of moments. First was the totally human reaction when you realise 1) that the last time you saw her was in 1991 2) that that was 21 years ago and 3) that, in that time, you both got older. No-one likes that moment.
However that was followed closely by the memory of the sublime 1991 performance at the Enmore Theatre where Lucinda, Rosanne Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter performed their ‘three chicks with three guitars’ (as Cash later called it) show, and which Kasey Chambers credits with inspiring her decision to perform professionally. Certainly it inspired in me an enduring love of all three artists.
So Lucinda launched straight into ‘Can’t Let Go’ from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her Grammy-award-winning and most commercially successful album to date. The band seemed tight and her voice was clear and strong. Had she not said anything we would have been none the wiser. It was a great start. However it turned out that, for some reason, she had missed sound check (reasons for which I am unaware) and she was not getting any feedback in her earpiece. This created some discomfort for Williams as negotiations with roadies and sound guys were had at the drum kit. Nonetheless, between conversations she powered on through ‘Pineola’, ‘Everybody’s Happy’, ‘Drunken Angel’ and ‘Well Well Well’, all of which sounded fine but which Williams admitted made her totally paranoid about what we were getting.
However, I think what followed gives us the measure of Williams and her fans.
She was uncomfortable and annoyed. She came to the mike and told us she wanted it to be great and that she was frustrated it wasn’t. For a lesser artist, it might have been a deal breaker, but it seemed every single person in that room just loved her all the more, willing her along and letting her know it was all good. And that’s the thing about Lucinda. The reason she is so loved and respected is her warts and all honesty. The fact that all the raw nerves in her life are exposed and hit hard by her cathartic processing of them into songs. So to not accept something of that rawness in live performance would be folly.
I’ve also since learned this sort of thing is not unusual. I’ve heard and read that even small things can seem to put her out, and one can only surmise it’s because she’s so invested in the success of her shows. But far from seeming precocious, this merely serves to bring her even closer to her audience. And so, problems sorted, Lucinda kicked on.
My personal favourites were ‘Over Time’ (which Willie Nelson has covered), ‘Fruits of Our Labour’, ‘Side of the Road’, ‘I Lost It’ and ‘Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings’.
I also loved ‘Joy’ in which she found her full voice and let fly with some funky anger. Brilliant.
However the unquestionable highlight was her performance of ‘Unsuffer Me’, from the West album. The darkness and desperation of the lyrics almost snarled out of her, carried on that crackling and grated voice as she pleads: “…Come in to my world / of loneliness / and wickedness / and bitterness / Anoint my head / With your sweet kiss / My joy is dead / I long for bliss.”. I defy any spines in that audience to have remained unshivered.
Of course no set would have been complete without ‘Passionate Kisses’ which was the first song of the encore. Whenever Williams performs it, you get the sense you’re sitting at her kitchen table as the ink dries on the last verse. It has nothing of the polish which Mary Chapin Carpenter brings to it, and you feel like you’re getting it fresh and ‘just as the maker intended it’. Don’t get me wrong, Carpenter’s version is wonderful. But this was just a lovely moment for one of my all-time favourite songs.
The gorgeous ‘Kiss Like Your Kiss’ from Blessed allowed the transition to the full band and added Jewell on backing vocals for the finale: a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What it’s Worth’ and Williams’ bluesy ‘Get Right With God’ from Essence. By now parts of the crowd were up and dancing and all of us were left with the experience we had hoped for.
We wanted Lucinda and that’s exactly who we got.
So it was a roller coaster of emotions starting with the dip of Champagne, the sweet lift provided by Jewell, the uncertainty of Williams’ beginning, then the emotional highs and lows of Williams’ own songs and experiences.
Like a kid at the Easter Show, I want another go.
Here’s a bad shot I managed to squeeze in before the photo police bore down (I promise to buy a better camera soon and stop using my phone):
Lucinda Williams Live at the State Theatre, April 2012