From the moment she stepped onto the stage at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale on Feb. 6, Lucinda Williams exemplified what sets her apart from most other singer/songwriters.
Having recently turned 67, Williams neither seems to be as self-obsessed, nor take herself as seriously, as fellow guitar-playing lead vocalists. Her combination of blues, Americana, country and rock styles seems inherently Texan, though she hails from Lake Charles, La., and she’s earned three Grammy Awards despite having released only a dozen or so studio albums over her 40-year recording career.
Fifty-two-year-old, New York City-born singer/songwriter Jesse Malin opened the three-quarter-capacity show, playing material from his latest album, the Williams-produced Sunset Kids (2019). Playing in a duo with versatile fellow singing guitarist (and Florida native) Derek Cruz, who occasionally doubled on keyboards, Malin effectively delivered tracks ranging from the ballad “Room 13” (sung by Williams on the recording) to the rousing “Meet Me at the End of the World Again” during a 35-minute set.
“It’s such a pleasure to be here opening for Lucinda Williams,” Malin said. “We just spent five crazy nights together on the Outlaw Country Cruise.”
In contrast to that working vacation, which sailed from Miami through Key West, Jamaica and back only days earlier, Williams started a work-woman-like, two-hour performance as more people trickled in. Her backing band, Buick 6 (guitarist/vocalist Stuart Mathis, bassist/vocalist David Sutton and drummer/vocalist Butch Norton), an existing trio that was unbelievably discovered by Williams when she heard it rehearsing on a break from its day job as co-workers at a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop in Los Angeles, added impressive harmonies, coloring, shading and flavoring throughout.
Early material like the opening “Steal Your Love” (from the 2001 album Essence) was hit-and-miss, as Williams, never the most precise of vocalists, occasionally fluctuated in pitch. That album’s impassioned title track, with Williams donning an electric guitar after playing an acoustic or no guitar previously, would fare better later on.
“When we come back to Florida, we really come back to Florida and play some shows,” Williams exclaimed afterward about her quartet’s lengthy on-and-offshore run through, and near, the Sunshine State. “This is the title song off the ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ album.”
That popular 1998 release yielded some of the evening’s highlights, both by design and multiple requests from the audience to a bemused Williams. Primary backing vocalist Sutton approximated the high, difficult harmonies during the chorus, and impressively switched between electric and acoustic upright basses throughout the evening.
Mathis’ solos during the show ranged from atmospheric and rootsy to effects-laden and distorted depending on Williams’ multi-faceted compositional style, and Norton played with drum sticks, brushes, mallets, maracas and other hand-held shakers — often within the same song. The drummer also put an over-sized, secondary snare drum and absurdly huge ride cymbal to good use via occasional patterns and accents.
The middle portion of the show gave the Buick 6 members a break, resulting in too many slower numbers, and sagging as a result. Selections like Williams’ solo delivery of the title track to her 2016 release The Ghosts of Highway 20, and the ballad “Side of the Road” (from her self-titled 1988 album), without Norton, brought the energy level down despite Sutton’s impressive use of a bow on his upright on the latter.
But advance new material from Williams’ forthcoming next album, the April release Good Souls Better Angels, brought things up several notches. “Man Without a Soul,” without mentioning its subject, made the occasionally rowdy audience go full-throated.
“You bring nothing good to this world,” Williams sang, “beyond a web of cheating and stealing/You hide behind your wall of lies, but it’s coming down,” those last few words eliciting roars as she repeated them.
The proceedings flourished thereafter. Williams previewed another strong track from her forthcoming politically-and-socially-charged release, a cover of Memphis Minnie’s bluesy “You Can’t Rule Me.” Interspersed were Buick 6’s reggae, funk and rock showcase “Are You Down?” from Essence; the much-requested “West Memphis” from her 2014 release Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, a rollicking “Unsuffer Me” from the 2007 recording West, and the infectiously funky “Joy” from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, with Mathis’ quote of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” and its refrain of, “You took my joy and I want it back.”
For the first of two encores, Williams chose the slow title track from the forthcoming Good Souls Better Angels, and delivered one of her best and most impassioned vocal performances of the evening. Alternately crooning, wailing and roaring, she was even brought to tears late in the dramatic piece, with her bandmates and stage hands alternately congratulating and consoling her until she was able to compose herself. In the funky finale “Righteously,” from the 2003 recording World Without Tears, Sutton even quoted the bass line to Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” as Williams, Mathis and Norton beamed through the fun of it all.
Williams’ strengths as a songwriter include wearing her humanity on her sleeve, and she’s clearly been energized by her longtime interaction with the chemistry and creativity of the Buick 6 members. Live, she understands that part of the joy of a concert involves imperfections, and the reactions and adjustments that she and her band mates must make to them.
And she doesn’t take herself seriously enough to thwart those elements, which are — and should be — the essence of all live performances. She’s akin to a female version of Bob Dylan, although that fellow heralded singer/songwriter wouldn’t have been capable of delivering Williams’ heartfelt goodbye to the Parker Playhouse crowd.
“Thank you,” she said. “You made me laugh; you made me cry. You let me be myself.”