The alt-country darling had to read her lyrics from a binder, but her top-notch backing band more than filled in any gaps in her memory.
Music, Published on Fri Nov 21 2014
At Massey Hall, Nov. 20.
What on earth is going on with Lucinda Williams?
That’s the first question the good denizens of a half-filled Massey Hall were probably asking themselves on Thursday moments before the Lake Charles, La., native took to the stage, as they spotted the separate music stand with an open binder placed next to her microphone.
At first, there might have been cause for worry: the 61-year-old, three-time Grammy-winning alt-country darling ventured on stage unaccompanied with an acoustic guitar strapped around her shoulder and proceeded to strum through “Blessed,” the title track of her 2011 album, reading the lyrics to the entire song, as her three backing band members joined her one by one.
As her nearly two-hour concert continued, first with Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’s “Can’t Let Go,” and then one of her earlier numbers, “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” Williams continued to leaf through the binder for the lyrics to the song she was about to sing. It was a prop that might have been better tolerated if it had been solely relegated to assisting her with material from her recent 20-song effort Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone instead of her entire 11-album catalog.
But life is a series of balances, and luckily for Williams, she had a secret weapon that pretty much nullified the distraction of the binder reliance: her band.
They were damned spectacular. In fact, if Williams continues touring with the same unit — Wallflowers guitarist Stuart Mathis and her long-time rhythm section David Sutton on bass and Butch Norton on drums — she should bill them as The Damned Spectacular, because they were nothing short of mesmerizing, elevating the Massey show to a level beyond reprieve.
Sutton and Norton are a tightly disciplined, in-the-pocket tandem that fill in so many holes with just the right notes that it makes Williams look like a certified genius for hiring them.
This was particularly noticeable on “Unsuffer Me,” where Norton slowed the song and maintained it at a restrained yet powerful enough pace — with Sutton adding intermittent notes that gave the arrangement room to breathe — to allow Mathis to cut through the air with laser-like riffs on his electric guitar.
And Mathis was no slouch either when it came to applying his own sonic paintbrush in terms of enlivening Williams’ tunes: he added great grit to “Essence,” strong pathos to “Changed the Locks” and shone with pretty much every note he played.
As for Williams, her charming Southern drawl sounded less ragged and vulnerable than on record. Her full-throated warbling on her emotionally honest, heart-wrenching songs “Changed the Locks” and “Compassion” — the song adapted from one of her father Miller Williams’ poems — was full of powerful gravitas, the icing on the cake of what ended up being a buoyant, jubilant evening of the passionate roots music jambalaya for which Williams is renowned. But the reason she was so good was unquestionably due to her blisteringly amazing band.
Also kudos to the soundman: the mix was perfect, and nicely captured the dynamic range of the music throughout the evening.
Just a final note to the headliner: Hey Lucinda, it wouldn’t kill you to spring for a TelePrompter.