During the summer of 1998, Lucinda Williams released her fifth album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The album, which was six turbulent years in the making, was a critical breakthrough and won Williams a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk album. This acclaimed work celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2018 and, in what has become somewhat customary these days, Williams put together a brief tour to celebrate the milestone.
This show at Northampton’s Calvin Theatre on November 2nd, the second date of a 12 date tour, found Williams in excellent form as she not only revisited her most successful album but provided the audience with a look into her life as well. Aided by her impressive band, Buick 6, she played the album in sequence, taking the listeners on a journey filled with southern cities, childhood memories, toxic men, drunks, juke joints and a whole lot of heartbreak. While songs like “Drunken Angel” and “Lake Charles” have been staples of her live shows for years, it’s was a thrill hearing this brilliant album performed from start to finish.
Williams has never used video in her shows before, but for this tour, she performed before a large screen that showed images that corresponded to each of the album’s thirteen songs. These included old photos, handwritten lyrics and a rare home movie of a young Williams and her family traveling to Mexico in 1969. The evening started off with that touching film as the singer and her band launched into the dreamy “Right in Time.”
Williams’ distinctive southern drawl is what provides her poetic narratives with much of their power. At the age of 65 her voice has naturally aged – it has gained an even grittier edge, yet one that sounded vulnerable on tunes like “Greenville” and downright fierce on “Joy.” And while the album benefited from guest appearances by artists like Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle (who she has suggested might join her at some dates), the material was perfectly performed by Buick 6. Guitarist Stuart Mathis delivered searing solos throughout the set, while David Sutton, who played both electric and stand up bass, also lent some nice vocals to tunes like “Concrete and Barbed Wire.” Drummer Butch Norton provided a strong backbeat and impressive percussion throughout the show. The band switched genres with ease playing everything from the country rock of the title track to the cow-punk of “Can’t Let Go” (the one track Williams didn’t write), and in the process reminding us why “Car Wheels” was considered a precursor to Americana.
Williams was in an extremely talkative mood and introduced each song with a story about its inception. She told of a rather inebriated Blaze Foley, who was the subject of “Drunken Angel,” sleeping on a pool table and shared some amusing anecdotes about a musician she was hopelessly in love with who lost interest in her once she dumped someone else for him. She acknowledged that “Metal Firecracker” and “Still Long for Your Kiss” were two of the songs inspired by “that guy,” adding with a laugh that “nobody is safe from the pen.”
After wrapping up “Car Wheels” Williams delved into more material from her extensive catalog, taking the stage alone for a haunting “The Ghosts of Highway 20,” the title track of her most recent album. From that point on the evening got a little more rocking and lot more political. She played a new song called “We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Back Now” that would have sounded at home back in the 1960s, and during her encore she reworked 2014’s “Foolishness” raising her voice as she added the lyrics “I don’t need racism in my life/I don’t need sexism in my life/ I don’t need walls in my life” as the crowd roared their approval. She kept the mood going when she closed with a powerful version of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” a perfect ending for a night that celebrated some great American songwriting.