Saturday, 3 August 2019

GIG REVIEW: Lucinda Williams - Birmingham Town Hall. Friday 2nd August 2019

Like a false start in a 100 metre sprint final, sometimes greatness requires a re-boot to click into gear. Maybe presentational timing wasn’t fully in place when the band entered the Town Hall stage, but we are in the presence of the queen of imperfection, an artist who turns frailties and fragility into a virtue. A false start indeed, but one quickly gathering pace to blossom in its pomp and prime. Here, the sprint analogy ends as events move into the territory of a two and a half hour marathon. This is Lucinda Williams as candid, full-on and content as any fan could wish. An artist entering a zone of proud reminiscence and an audience taken on a journey that few suspected could ever be so deep, intense, revealing and downright enthralling. Any whispering doubts substantiated by precedence were cast aside. This is Lucinda Williams - the legend. This is CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD - an album cementing a genre. This is a gig of the ages.

The algorithms were in full throttle on social media to sell this Birmingham Town Hall show out. OK nearly, if you literally interpret ‘limited availability’, but who’s counting. After missing out the city when promoting the last two albums (in my opinion her most compelling bodies of work since CAR WHEELS), what better way to amend than celebrate an album that never ages in the mist of time and refreshes the mind with each listen, no matter the distance apart. 

A two-dimensional approach worked wonders in making this evening tick. One that became so apparent as the show evolved. In the strictest or loosest of terms, CAR WHEELS is a folk album (a Grammy winning one to boot) composed by a folk artist to the most stripped down degree in its sensitivity. Yet the release from piling so much into a life affirming creative project was to rock out with total inhibition. Just like the subsequent albums post-1998, there was no holding back for the second part of this gig as Lucinda’s backing band, the Buick 6 (a three piece with twice the velocity), had the brakes released to have every rock purist purring at the excellence on display. 

The seven-track segment that followed the crowning moment of CAR WHEELS accounted for the final forty-five minutes of this extended-no interval gig, a period where any opportunity to sink back into folk mode was resisted. In no particular order, ‘Foolishness’, ’Righteously’, ‘Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings’, ‘Unsuffer Me’, ‘Steal Your Love’, 'Essence' and ‘Hard Times Killing Floor Blues’ was the alternative hand dealt. The first of these saw Lucinda unite 900 people in the most important message, while the last one (an old Skip James song) was sent out to that regular Midlands gig goer - Mr Robert Plant. Will Kimbrough famously said at a show in the area once ‘I hear Bobby Plant’s in the audience tonight’, Lucinda just hoped he’d stayed around long enough to hear her tribute to one of the greats of the blues. 

Of course, there is a difference between Lucinda Williams the folk singer and Lucinda Williams the rock star. While both feature strong in her DNA, it is allowed to err to one side as a fan and here it is the sheer magnitude to write, perform and sweat out the most delicate and articulate of sensitive observational songs. During the thirteen track running order presentation of CAR WHEELS, the vocals undulated across the peaks and troughs of an artist battle weary from attaining the summit of a life mission. Occasionally they misfire, but when digging deep they shatter into a million pieces to ache, hurt and bury deep into the mineshaft of her poignant songs. Frequently during the hour and three quarters spent celebrating a 52-minute record (yet not a second of talk time was wasted or drifted into the ether) you were lulled into a zone of live music fixation, no finer from my perspective than the absolutely adorable ‘Lake Charles’. Listening to the intro, switching the eyes between a singer immersed in a song and a screen displaying some impulsive images coupled with hearing the voice in pristine gravelly form added both chills and the early signs of a moist tear. 

Closely following this total stand out moment (unlikely to be surpassed all year), was an outstanding version of ‘Greenville’, which needed no introduction if you interpreted it as the follow-up to the preceding ‘Metal Firecracker’, one that did have its origins laid out. Joining the holy trinity of CAR WHEELS slowed down, you have to travel a long way to find a better closer than ‘Jackson’. A secular gospel song if such a beast exists and one where you could listen alongside viewing the original scrawled lyrics displayed on the screen. Of course, to warn off any karaoke, they often didn’t match. Also, the soulful element to ‘Still I Long for Your Kiss’ was strikingly evident. 

After listening to endless stories of how the album came about and its multitude of inspirations, nobody present could ever listen to CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD in a similar light again. If education is as important as straight up listening to your live music experience, then tonight was right up your street. Names, events, locations and liaisons freely flowed from a performer seemingly having the time of her life. A solitary thought was, could this make a good live album or DVD, but then countered by, you had to be there to really grasp the moment. A tough statement for those not able to catch this show on a tour that didn’t call at all ports.

Thankfully, Birmingham Town Hall was one such port and without hesitation it gatecrashed the top of the 2019 gig standings by a lengthy margin. 

You could literally write an essay on the findings of the show. To summarise a couple of feelings: ‘2 Cool 2 Be 4-Forgotten’ came over in a totally different mantra live than on record, ‘Concrete and Barbed Wire’ is one of those gifted songs where interpretation can be so personal - a true trait of a great song - and Lucinda did well to emerge from her Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt days as laid out in ‘Drunken Angel’

Reflection material from this gig is varied, comprehensive, rich and provoking. Four words that probably go a decent way to interpreting the career of Lucinda Williams. 

For one night only, Birmingham Town Hall was planted on the fault line of East Texas and West Louisiana. A place where music sinks deep in its soul and alongside the delta of Mississippi, where Americana finds it true home. Lucinda Williams - the full package - didn’t miss its intended destination tonight. Now, let us slip on CAR WHEELS again and discover that different light. 

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