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Lucinda Williams

Manchester May 2003

by Russell Blatcher

 

In Manchester on the third day of May 2003 we were blessed, blessed, blessed. Blessed by a sublime hat trick from Ruud van Nistelrooy, blessed by the return of the dynamic rampaging Roy Keane we thought was gone forever and blessed by a Lucinda Williams performance which from the first song to the last sent shivers down my spine. 

Miss Williams is of a very similar age to me, she’s 50, and though she has doubtless lived a very different kind of life to me and the majority of the similarly aged audience, she must, surely, share some of our middle-aged exhaustion. We are married, with grown up children, retirement visible on the horizon, she, if we believe the image, is single, childless, veteran of multiple failed relationships and nightly brawling booze drenched shows, haunting the highways, pubs, dives and bars of the U.S. in tour buses.

The build up to her arrival on stage at about 9 pm had conspired in many ways to undermine its success. The Ardwick Apollo, appropriately branded “Carling” in view of its equally distressed exterior and interior is an appalling filthy old concert hall, with broken toilets, loutish security, chipped and broken décor, sticky carpets and uncomfortable seats. The support act started late, were utterly devoid of any redeeming features, playing to a standard which most public bar back-rooms would not tolerate, but taking full advantage of the power of the PA so we would suffer fully the nuances of the singer’s wretched facsimile of every aspect of Joan Armatrading’s vocal style. To add insult to injury the MC had to inform us that they were from Manchester. The intermission then stretched on, long enough for most of a Kinks greatest hit package from You Really Got Me to Autumn Almanac. Incredibly some morons attempted to start a slow handclap. It became clear from Lucinda Williams’ remarks in the course of the set that this was not the kind of venue or audience to which she is accustomed. Even before that the audience should have known that she is not likely to perform to some local authority by-laws schedule. Some, more “professional”, performers may be able to turn up play from 7.30 through to 9.00 or 9.30, but this reminded me of many shows in the sixties and seventies when we knew there was no point in arriving until at least an hour after the scheduled start, and then still expect delays. I grant you that part of that was caused by the time setting up the equipment used to take, but in the main it was to allow the performers time to reach the correct mental and physical condition to start playing (however they achieved that!). 

So, when she and the band finally arrived on stage sometime after 9.00, there were one or two shouts, including “You’re late, it better be good”.  Miss Williams growled response to this was a curt “it’ll be fuckin’ good”, and they launched straight into Metal Firecracker. I was  fortunate perhaps to have front row dead centre seats in the circle, but even so all the concerns mentioned in the previous paragraph fell away the instant Doug Pettibone hit the first chord of the first song. The sound in that old dump was fantastic, loud but clear, every word of the vocal recognisable (more so than often is the case on the albums).  The group are physically unusual, Doug Pettibone, lead guitar and Taras Prodaniuk bass are big, big men, both head and shoulders above Lucinda and wide with it, the instruments they used looked small in their hands. The drummer Jim Christie had a white goatee beard and used an unusual range of techniques (on many songs he played a Latin style shaker in one hand with only one stick in the other, without any diminution in impact). Williams herself wears a halter-top under a cut short leather jacket and skintight jeans. Next to her vocal mike is a prompter stand on which the road crew has placed a large volume of lyrics. Unlike most modern performers, she didn’t plough relentlessly through a rigid set list, even though lists had been taped down for the other musicians. A friend in the stalls tells me there was a palpable sense that many of the audience were from the dead hand of long-established fans, who preferred her earlier, less raucous, material. These will be the slow handclappers. Anyhow, some sense of this seemed to reach the singer, which, I think partially explains her self-inflicted disruption of the set. 

Next was Ventura, one of the standouts of her new album. Pettibone moved over to the pedal steel, sadly the only song on which it was used. This song is more than a new paradigm for both the pain of lost love. It also concerns those questions about existence described in Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea.  The half spoken verses deal out large scale close ups of the details of a day to day life mired in the depths of a raging depression: 

Decide I’m goin to make self a little something to eat
Get a can down off the shelf, maybe a little something sweet
Haven’t spoken to to one, haven’t been in the mood
Pour some soup get a spoon stir it up real good
Go out with a friend, may be a little  music might help
but I can’t pretend I wish I was somewhere else: 

I wanna watch the ocean bend the edges of the sun, then
I wanna get swallowed up in an ocean of love. 

Put on my coat go out on to the street
Get a lump in my throat and look down at my feet
Take a long way home so I can ride around
Put Neil Young on and turn up the sound
Drive up the coastline, maybe Ventura
Watch the waves make signs out on the water 

I wanna watch the ocean bend the edges of the sun, then
I wanna get swallowed up in an ocean of love. 

Stand in the shower, clean this dirty mess
Get me back my power, and drown this unholiness
Lean over the toilet bowl, throw up my confessions
Cleanse my soul of  this hidden obsession 

I wanna watch the ocean bend the edges of the sun, then
I wanna get swallowed up in an ocean of love.
I wanna watch the ocean bend the edges of the sun, then
I wanna get swallowed up in an ocean of love. 

In Nausea, Sartre’s character Roquentin is confronted by the banality of the stuff of existence by contemplating the root of a chestnut tree: 

...all of a sudden, there it was, as clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost its harmless appearance as an abstract category: it was the very stuff of things, that root was steeped in existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass on the lawn, all that had vanished; the diversity of things, their individuality, was only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft monstrous masses, in disorder – naked, with a frightening obscene nakedness. 

Behind the minutiae of daily life in the verses of the song (the can of soup, the spoon, and the toilet bowl) is that same repulsion at the “obscene nakedness” of the “stuff of things”. This also resembles the way Philip K. Dick’s characters will often see that veneer crack, for example, in Time Out Of Joint, Ragle Gumm sees a soft drink stand in a park dissolve and be replaced by a slip of paper on which is written  “Soft-Drink Stand”. Gumm is the victim of a drug-aided illusion, but Dick clearly feels, like Sartre, that our own “realities” of consciousness are flawed cheap fakes. The impact of these kinds of feelings is heightened when the perceived unreality includes our own existence. But the disappearance of the self, or loss of self-awareness is, in another context, regarded as a form of apotheosis, if it is assumed that the universe is, instead of a dead “thing”, an homogeneous living being imbued with a pervasive divinity. That alternative reaction is of course much more likely when surrounded by a scene of natural beauty, which is why the chorus of Ventura finds the singer gazing at the Pacific Ocean. 

As she broke into the first chorus, the raw emotion of both the meaning of the words and the sound of her voice hit home hard. Her voice soared into life from the flattened, stumbling delivery of the chorus, dominating, but perfectly balanced with the band, especially the glistening glissandos from the pedal steel. 

On the surface, this is a song about depression following a broken relationship, very much a commonplace of the country music genre. But Lucinda Williams, like Phillip K. Dick, transcends the genre that she is perceived as coming from. In my view, much reinforced by seeing it performed live, this song describes the struggle to overcome that depressive and determinist view of existence with a transcendental philosophy, which is prepared to submerge the self in a universal being, or as she describes it: “get swallowed up in an ocean of love”. 

In the final verse “this dirty mess” which is that debased and soulless physical existence as well as that lost love is strongly related to “unhholiness”, by rhyme. The spiritual connotation of the whole song is exemplified in the metaphor of vomiting as confession, the cleansing of the soul. So the “hidden obsession” is transformed from her lost lover into the lost faith which she hopes to recover at the ocean’s edge. No one is currently writing better songs than this. And no one performs them with such power and beauty. Only the magic of such art can defeat the “monstrous masses” of disorder, which writhe just below the surface of our lives. 

The set continued to draw from World Without Tears, with Righteously and Sweet Side. On some songs, including the latter, Williams gave short explanatory introductions of their themes, but at one stage, apparently again stricken with self doubt, she expressed scorn at the usefulness of these explanations and of her own stage presence. After the first song not from World Without Tears (Are You Down, from Essence) Williams apologised for “bloopers” (unheard by me!) and started introducing unplanned titles as recompense: “I’ll throw in a couple of extra songs to make up for them stinkers”. She also remarked upon the “reserve” displayed by the audience, due to being in “this the-a-ater”. She was I think reacting to real or imagined audience resistance to her newer material. We were given a short summary of the fuss over her use of ‘rap’ in Ventura and other new songs. She averred that this was no new thing, that indeed Bob Dylan had done it, to a rather surreal small cheer, which was probably enthusiasm for Dylan rather than rap. I presume she is thinking specifically of Subterranean Homesick Blues. Of the apparent ‘bonus’ songs, the most welcome for me were Drunken Angel and Side Of The Road. When informed of the latter’s introduction during one of the frequent huddles with the roadies, Pettibone killed the volume on his amplifier and proceeded to rehearse the chords in silence, while the roadie was hurriedly flicking through Lucinda’s book of words on the lectern. The lectern was a crutch more than a necessity, I only saw her glance at it once whilst singing. I could detect no difference in performance quality between the planned and unplanned numbers. All of them stopped or petered out without planned endings. Lucinda’s comment that they played “loose like Neil Young and Crazy Horse” is to me more a compliment than a criticism. Indeed, I’m sure it is exactly the approach she wants. The musicians all had the kind of chops that can cope with sudden changes effortlessly. I was reminded of Chuck Berry’s attempts to get Keith Richards to change key seconds before launching a song, to Richards’ consternation and amusement. 

Lucinda Williams is scheduled to tour the US as support to Neil Young this summer. These will be venues and audiences even more different than those she is encountering here at the moment: 

I'm kind of at a crossroads in my career right now, I just turned 50 and it feels like my career is starting to take off. I'm in a pretty comfortable zone right now. 

This whole thing started with me playing in little bars in 1973. Now all of a sudden there's a lot more at stake. This is where bad decisions are made. Other people get involved. So I always look at everything and ask lots of questions. 

I was pleased to see in the Independent’s review of her Shepherds Bush Empire show (Gavin Martin 07 May 2003) that her asking of questions includes the hardest one currently for those in the public eye in the U.S.A.: 

At the close, she returns to her primal blues roots with a Skip James standard and wears her Southern rebel credentials proudly when she introduces the slightly cumbersome "American Dream", telling the audience that, like the Dixie Chicks, she was ashamed of George Bush, too. 

American Dream was the one song whose absence I really regretted from the show in Manchester. If the great American public embraces this artist, I am sure she will continue to tell them the truth, however cumbersome Mr Martin may find it.
 

Unconfirmed Set List
 

Metal Firecracker
Ventura
Righteously
Sweet Side
Are You Down
Changed the Locks
Those 3 Days
Atonement
Joy
Still I long For Your Kiss
People Talking
Sweet Old World
Essence
Side of the Road
Real Live Bleeding Fingers
Drunken Angel
Get Right With God
  World Without Tears
World Without Tear
World Without Tears
World Without Tears
Essence
Lucinda Willaims
World Without Tears
World Without Tears

Car Wheels On
A Gravel Road
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
World Without Tears

Sweet
Old World
Essence
Lucinda Williams
World Without Tears

Car Wheels On
A Gravel Road
Essence


 
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