Lucinda Williams is one of the few contemporary pop figures who can turn a honky-tonk into a concert hall and vice versa, thanks to the poetic sophistication and grace she mixes with the raw emotion of country music and the blues.
On Monday at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, there were times during Williams' nearly two-hour show when the veteran singer-songwriter made the room feel as lively as a back-road tavern deep in her native Louisiana.
One such moment came early in the set when Williams, wearing a cowboy hat and black leather jacket and jeans, led her tenacious four-piece band into "Reason to Cry," one of the standout tunes on Williams' new album, "Essence."
From the seductive electric guitar lines to the bittersweet reflections in the lyrics, the song is meant for a slot right next to vintage Hank Williams or Merle Haggard tunes on that tavern's righteous jukebox.
Williams' voice is coarse and too limited in range for it to be noteworthy if she weren't singing her own songs, but she instills her own words with a breathless yearning that takes you deep inside her world in an enthralling soul-to-soul embrace.
"When you lose your happiness/When no one's standing by/When nothing makes any sense/You've got reason to cry," she wailed in such deep, expressive tones that she surely would touch on any romantic wounds you've ever felt.
As stark and bare-roots as that song is, Williams tied it Monday to "Blue," another song from the new album, but this one built around a melody so lovely and delicate that you could picture it served up with strings before a black-tie crowd in a choice concert hall.
Singing this time with a touch of sweet vibrato in her voice, Williams spoke in "Blue" of depression too deep to shake: "So go to confession/Whatever gets you through/You can count your blessings/I'll just count on blue."
Williams also did six other songs from the new album, and they were equally involving--from the joyous, gospel-edged blues punch of "Get Right With God" to the painful search for closure outlined in "Bus to Baton Rouge."
Conventional wisdom is that the new album lacks the ambition and classic framing of Williams' "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," the 1998 collection that edged out Lauryn Hill's "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" for best album of the year in the annual Village Voice poll of U.S. pop critics.
But many listeners, including this one, find "Essence" a more satisfying set of songs. Stepping away from the storytelling style that made some of the "Gravel Road" compositions seem too much like formal songwriting exercises, Williams speaks in the new album more directly and, one senses, more personally. The result is music that is more evocative and absorbing.
Williams also did several songs from "Gravel Road" on Monday, and they were never less than well-crafted. Still, the music seemed more inspired when Williams and the band turned to the new material, especially during a spirited encore session that also featured singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, who was the opening act, on backing vocals.
Though "Lonely Girls," one of the new tunes, sounds slight on "Essence," the band locked into a groove during the encore that turned it into an affecting anthem of lost dreams--a song at once so pure and so artful that it brought together gloriously the concert hall and roadhouse edges of Williams' music.
There are only two ways to go as an artist after the over-the-top acclaim for "Gravel Road." You can either become self-conscious and stick cautiously to the elements that made that album so successful, or you can reach inside for even deeper artistic impulses.
With "Essence," Williams has taken the latter step. She is addressing listeners more freely and more directly in the album's key songs, and she seems to be having more fun with the music.
While the show beautifully showcased the new material, she and the band, featuring guitarist Bo Ramsey and longtime L.A. drummer Don Heffington, also served up a flat-out rock 'n' roll delight in her hard-driving "Change the Locks," which Tom Petty has recorded, and still had time left for some full-throttle blues-rock jams.
Time magazine's recent declaration that Williams is the best songwriter in America is open to serious debate, even if you narrow the competition to Williams' home base of Nashville, where superb writers John Prine and Steve Earle would contest her for local bragging rights.
In her best moments Monday, however, Williams, who graciously dedicated songs to two recently deceased musicians, Joey Ramone and John Lee Hooker, showed that she has the competitive heart of a great artist and deserves a place on the very short list of our premier songwriters.