November 3, 2023
Lucinda Williams has triumphed over adversity time and again, and she proved it again last Sunday at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, NJ. It was the closing night of a brief tour she pulled together to showcase both her new record, Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart (which features backing-vocal contributions from both Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa) and memoir, Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You. She’d picked up a bit of a cough overnight, she said, but in truth, it was barely noticeable. Her unique and mellifluous voice was as transcendent as ever; it hits you in the gut, that ability to convey profound sorrow and yet also resilience and determination and empathy.
Williams, on a recovery journey after a stroke suffered in 2020, was guided onstage by a member of her road crew; she moved slowly, haltingly, to her location center stage, where a barstool chair and small table were placed. She was welcomed with a standing ovation.
Wearing a black Runaways t-shirt and her trademark black leather jacket and jeans, Lucinda remained her warm, folksy self for most of the evening, making self-deprecating comments about her tendency to ramble - especially on the subject of Southern cuisine - during her onstage raps. She also explained that she would not be playing guitar due to her physical challenges; this was just a “temporary setback,” she said with a smile.
Supported by her stellar band Buick 6, Williams performed several songs while standing, but was seated for most of the evening; the process of being seated or standing up required some crew assistance that took several minutes each time. During these pauses, both band and audience waited in respectful silence except for the occasional shout of support, and all treated her with gentle kindness and respect.
It was a slow-moving, carefully planned and executed show that demanded attention, and she got it, as the audience mostly sat in respectful silence throughout. This was not a traditional rock’n’roll show, though; rather, it was a reflective performance that told the story of her life through her songs, which were introduced by brief comments that placed each one in context. The story of her life was also told through video and still images projected behind the band as each song was performed; moody, mostly black and white, the presentation included both family photos and home movies as well as images and music videos that illustrated some of the themes of the material. As a whole, the entire event was so deeply personal that at times, it felt as though you were sitting in her living room rather than in a theater.
Each song in the carefully chosen set list represented a specific time in her life and career and often a musical influence as well. The show opened with “Blind Pearly Brown,” a new, as yet unrecorded ode to a vagabond blues musician whom she had seen performing on the streets of Macon, Georgia as a young girl. Holding her father’s hand, Williams recalled in the song’s introduction, she stood transfixed by the raw emotion and pathos of this Black preacher, blind since birth, who although he was a celebrated musician who had once made a record, was forced to make his meager living busking for money. The narrator’s heart seemingly breaks as she relates that the reverend often lamented how people could be so cruel to a poor Black man just trying to survive. The simple tale of a neglected and all but forgotten early influence, “Blind Pearly Brown” was followed by her cover of Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train,” a starkly beautiful folk song that effortlessly conveys the invisible weight borne by Black sharecroppers and itinerant workers as they struggle to make their way in the harsh physical and social landscape of the Depression-era South. These two plainspoken songs, performed in Williams’ empathetic, soulful soprano, hit like a one-two gut punch that left the audience in stunned silence. Indeed, mortality was a central theme of the evening, as friends, colleagues and family who had passed from her life were memorialized in a quartet of songs dealing with death and loss: “Pineola,” written for a colleague of her father, poet and academic Miller Williams; “Lake Charles,” which mourns the loss of an early romantic partner; “Drunken Angel,” an ode to the late Austin musician Blaze Foley; and “Little Angel, Little Brother,” a character sketch of her younger brother, from whom she’s been estranged for some time. There is death and heartache and loss in everyone’s life – it’s part of being human. But there are few artists who can illuminate the pain of such experiences in such simple yet profound language. It’s a remarkable feat.
Her reverential discussion of Bob Dylan and subsequent performance of his “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” was also noteworthy, given the vast and diverse array of influences she’s cited over the years. Perhaps he was provided the space in the set because like Lucinda, he has also had a brush with death, and despite being ten years older, is not only still touring, but is himself releasing some of the best material of his career and putting together thoughtful and engaging performances of his own.
The detailed structure of the show made it easy to see the through line from her life on the road, the time spent looking through the windows of her tour bus at the passing scenery, to where her career has landed. Her 2016 double album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, was inspired by such trips down that “blues highway” and through the southland of her youth, during which she recalled many of the scenes later depicted throughout that record and in “Blind Pearly Brown.”
The evening was not a completely mournful road trip through Williams’ life, however; following “Freight Train,” there was a bright, upbeat performance of Hank Wiliams’ “Jambalaya,” and the urgent desire of “Righteously” got the audience on its feet to round out the night. However, in keeping with the overall zeitgeist of the evening, the main set ended in a reflective mood, with “Where the Song Will Find Me,” a lovely, lyrical rumination on the creative process and “Rock n Roll Heart,” her triumphant statement of purpose. (The latter was introduced with a brief thanks to Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, who, to her apparent surprise, contributed vocals to the album track.They were nowhere near the Jersey Shore that evening to accept her thanks, however, as Scialfa’s induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame was taking place in Newark that same night.)
If there was a bone to be picked in this memorable evening, it was perhaps the omission of earlier, noteworthy material like “Six Blocks Away” and “Passionate Kisses,” which may have been more suitable encore material. But that was insignificant next to the power and mastery of Williams’ otherworldly, unforgettable performance in Red Bank. Bob Dylan, take heed - Lucinda has still got it, too.