By Brian Wise.
FORUM THEATRE, MELBOURNE – MONDAY DECEMBER 7
A Lucinda Williams show is always special because, while you never quite know whether you will get the happy or the moody artist, you always know there will be a terrific batch of songs. Not that Williams is anything like Van Morrison, it’s just that she likes to have things perfect and anything less can be off-putting for her. A few years ago during her first Bluesfest set the sound wasn’t quite right and it affected the performance; yet on the second show she was back to her best. And look at the history of an album such as Car Wheels On A Gravel Road for an example of just what a perfectionist Williams can be.
A day earlier she had done a one hour set at Rochford Winery as part of the A Day on the Green line-up that included her friend Kasey Chambers, Paul Kelly and Dan Sultan (who impressively opened tonight’s show in solo mode). That was just a cameo and the warm-up for this show. On Monday night everything aligned perfectly to make for one of the best Lucinda Williams shows we have ever seen in Melbourne, and certainly one of the best I have ever seen her do, either here or in the USA.
The Forum is a great venue with equally good sound thanks to Williams touring sound engineer, the audience was reverential yet enthusiastic , Williams seemed exceptionally happy and her band, Buick 6, is a killer outfit. Add to that a twenty-two song set covering seven albums, plus two songs from her forthcoming album, and you have all the ingredients for a brilliant night. And that it was!
At the age of 62, Williams is still at the top of her game. The latest album Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone is one of her best albums for years and on the strength of just the two songs from the new album The Ghosts of Highway 20 (due February) played tonight that album is set to maintain the standard.
Williams has had a lot of great musicians pass through her touring bands but the current outfit has to be one of the best to ever work wither her. It is apt that they have their own band name Buick 6 because it feels like a tight-knit unit.
Drummer Butch Norton, bassist David Sutton and guitarist Stuart Mathis all had their own considerable careers before working in this configuration and the experience shows. It is also fitting that the band is named Buick 6 – powerful and utterly reliable, just like the car engine after which it was named. You can hear all of that on their own great album Plays Well with Others, a superb mainly rock instrumental record the likes of which is rarely made anymore. Williams even stood aside several times to watch in admiration as the band elaborated on some of the songs.
Comparisons can be odious but I was reminded of the power that I have witnessed at some of Patti Smith’s shows in recent years with Lenny Kaye steering her band. You might see Williams cast into the Americana net but she is also fronting a great rock band.
Opening with two songs from Spirit – the lurching ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ and ‘Protection.’ The first half of the show also included ‘Can’t Let Go’ and ‘Drunken Angel’ from Car Wheels, ‘People Talkin’ and ‘Those Three Days’ from World Without Tears and ‘West Memphis,’ again from Spirit. Then the band left the stage for Williams to play the title track of the new album ‘The Ghosts Of Highway 20’ on acoustic guitar before being joined by Stuart Mathis for ‘Lake Charles’ (off Car Wheels) and ‘Sweet Old World’ (with David Sutton on upright bass).
After ‘Dust,’ another fantastic sounding song from The Ghosts of Highway 20 (which featured a blistering solo from Mathis), Williams announced that what was to follow would be ‘the rock portion of the show.’ She then launched into ‘Are You Down?’ (Essence) and ‘Come On’ (West) before an extended version of ‘Foolishness’ from Spirit with the line ‘I don’t need Donald Trump’ in my life which drew a huge ovation from the audience (and this was the day before Trump’s latest insane gaffe!).
‘Changed The Locks,’ (Lucinda Williams), the title from Essence and ‘Honey Bee’ (Little Honey) closed the show but a long standing ovation brought everyone back on stage with Williams saying, ‘You always knew we were coming back, didn’t you?’ before doing The Clash’s ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go.’
Then ‘Righteously,’ featured a bass quote from ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ immediately recognised by the audience followed by a fist-pumping, hard driving version of Neil Young’s ‘Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World,’ of which Neil would be proud.
Finally, after yet another encore appeal, Williams asked, almost apologetically, if she could play AC/DC’s ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’- dedicated to that band who was currently also in town. Williams did it in her own inimitable fashion that turned it on its head and was a lot more subtle than AC/DC could possibly imagine.
After two hours and ten minutes Williams and band exited the stage having convinced everyone that they had seen something exceptional. Awesome was the word that immediately sprang to mind to describe it. Magnificent is what someone else near me called it. The Ghosts of Highway 20 is eagerly awaited!)
It’s interesting to note that Lucinda Williams played two dates in Melbourne and one nearby in the Yarra Valley while Taylor Swift arrives this week to play three dates at AAMI Park to about fifteen times the total audience. Two ends of the spectrum there: the veteran artist with a catalogue of truly great songs and the young pop artist with some massive hit records. It’s good that there is room for both artists to have a career but I think we all know whose songs will be remembered with most respect and admiration in twenty years’ time.
Lucinda Williams has three more shows in Australia: December 10 – Hobart – Odeon Theatre, December 12 – Peter Lehmann Wines, Tanunda SA and December 13 – Kings Park & Botanic Garden, Perth.