At the Commodore Ballroom on Monday, June 24
You see them on Netflix, or sometimes you see them live: shows where the artist talks at some length between songs about their influences and inspirations, inviting you into the world of deep background.
From Springsteen on Broadway to Conversations With Nick Cave, there seem to be increasing opportunities these days to engage with the performers you admire, to hear their stories either firsthand or via your television or internet connection, to have their songs explained to you without need for an intermediary such as a music journalist.
Hearing the stories told by Lucinda Williams between songs last night at the Commodore–stories that sometimes seemed to last as long as the songs themselves–wasn’t that different from how music journalists feels when they are lucky enough to have a long, revealing conversation with an artist in the run-up to a show. Fans didn’t actually get to ask any questions, but Williams knows better than any journalist or audience what the “right” questions would have been, and that painted an intimate picture of her songs.
For the first half of the concert, which marked the 20th anniversary of Williams’ Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, Williams provided expansive and honest backstories for each tune. These were at times raw and intensely personal, as when she related the discovery that the title track of that album was in fact about her own experience of childhood. She hadn’t realized that herself, until her father heard it performed at one of her concerts and was moved enough to say he was sorry. That brought a whole new level of depth to “Car Wheels On a Gravel Road” lyrics like “Child in the backseat ‘bout four or five years/Lookin’ out the window/Little bit of dirt mixed with tears.”
You might have read similar things online–Williams’s talked about the song before in interviews–but it’s quite another thing to stand with totally silent strangers and listen to such stories being told to you, unfiltered, by the singer herself. She took her time, digressing as she saw fit, until she had painted a clear and memorable portrait of each number, trusting that we would be interested, that we would listen attentively, that the stories would matter to us.
For the most part, we acquitted ourselves all right. There were a few miscues. Compared to other parts of the world, Vancouver does not have very sophisticated audiences, when it comes to knowing how to pay attention to a band, and it sometimes takes drastic measures to get people to shut up and pay attention (so far Rodney DeCroo, Jonathan Richman and Justin Sullivan have done it most skillfully, of shows I’ve seen).
In fact, our lack of sophistication was one of the reasons I had a hard time with Williams’ last show that I saw, in 2015, at the Vogue: Williams was chatty and generous then, too, but the audience just didn’t listen well enough that night to make her stories seem as captivating as they were.
At times, it was even embarrassing: I vividly recall a hoarse male voice, that night at the Vogue, bellowing harshly a command that she “Play “Essence,” dammit!” It came sounding out almost assaultive, like an act of violence against the band and Williams, and lessened the impact of the song when they did get to it.
Who knows, maybe it was the same guy, last night, who interrupted Williams’s stories about Blaze Foley, whom she described as a legend, to shout, “No, you’re the legend!” I suppose it was well intentioned, but it would have been probably more respectful and appreciative to just listen to what Williams was saying, y’know?
To Williams’ credit, she just ignored the one or two similar shouts during the night, and continued confidently with her narratives, which quickly showed the audience how she’d prefer they listen to her. It was practically on the level of a Jedi Mind Trick, how her simply ignoring the unwanted shouting managed to discourage further such outbursts. And it worked!
Thank the gods of music for that, because when else will you get to hear someone who knew both Townes van Zandt and Blaze Foley, telling us tales of the two men–with legendary appetites for booze–drinking together?
Her stories for “Drunken Angel” also took in Ethan Hawke’s movie about Foley, Blaze, and her amazement to see how the visibility of Foley, mostly unknown when the song was written, has steadily grown over the last 20 years. (She even mentioned my favourite Foley song, “If I Could Only Fly.”)
We also got to hear how “Joy” was influenced, indirectly, by the music that Steve Earle got into while he was in prison. (Williams told us the song would have been “even more hip-hop” if Earle had had his way).
The funniest story of the night was about “Metal Firecracker,” about a brief, intense tour bus romance that ended when the fella she was besmitten with said something akin to, “I love you, baby, but I’m having trouble fitting you into my agenda.” There was a lot of laughter during that story, and more than a little embarrassment on Williams’s part to tell it, though her own embarrassment seemed to amuse her a little, too.
The images that played over the drum riser during that first portion of the show were almost as captivating as Williams’ songs and explanations. Almost cinematic, they drew on home movies, candid photos of the singer’s youth, and other bits of realia.
One gig poster was emblazoned with the words “The Southern Woman,” with a Lynda Barry-esque cartoon of Williams and the words, “Lucinda Williams, Saint of White Trash”. A black and white picture of the singer as a young woman, which illustrated “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” looked a bit like Sissy Spacek in Badlands. It felt at times like Williams was taking us through her private photo albums.
With “Can’t Let Go,” however – and quite appropriately – the images took a backseat, becoming more dully illustrative, sometimes even texty (As much as I like lyrics, it felt at times like I was watching Netflix with the subtitles on). This made up the second, transitional period of the set, where the band slowly came to the fore over the images.
The show, from that point on essentially side 2 of Car Wheels, plus a few songs afterwards–was less visually exciting, but the songs and stories stayed intense and engaging. It was all too much to keep up with. Like how “I Lost It” was inspired by seeing bumper stickers saying “I Found It?”
The third quarter of the concert kicked off with a solo performance of “Ghosts of Highway 20.” (Her backing band, Buick Six, accompanied her in some form or other for everything else). The images ceased, then, and the stories got progressively shorter. There were two or three songs like this that were less engaging, perhaps because I was making a transition from having been intensely focused on the images behind the stage to having just the band up there.
The lull perhaps was necessary, to give us a break from the intensity that had gone before, and get us warmed up for full attentiveness during the final quarter of the concert, which was in every way as remarkable as the first, but much more of a conventional rock concert.
With songs like “Foolishness” and “Blessed,” Williams and Buick 6 made you forget entirely about the show and tell that had kicked off the night. Some of the lyrics of “Blessed,” a song I had not heard before, brought tears to my eyes: “We were blessed by the teacher/ Who didn’t have a degree/ We were blessed by the prisoner/ Who knew how to be free.”
A glance at Setlist FM shows that pretty much every show on the tour has followed the same pattern, at least for the first half. Gigs in California and Oregon also had Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, played in order. The last act allowed for a few wild cards, however–songs she’s played frequently on the tour, but not necessarily every night.
It made for a bit of tension, for those who had peeked at past shows, to wonder which of these variable numbers we would be treated to. Would she play “West of Memphis?” (No). Would she play ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago?” (No.) Would she play “Get Right With God?” (No). “Essence?” (No.) These are a few of the crowd-pleasers that have been in rotation, but Vancouver didn’t hear any of those.
So which song did we get? The lucky audience at the Commodore drew a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”.
The savage contrast between that song’s anthemic chorus and the soul-crushing lyrics during the verse got lost a bit in all the fun people were having singing along with Williams, who encouraged the audience in clapping along–something that rarely seems as sincere or guileless a gesture as she made it.
She also occasionally just stood aside and dug what her band was doing without her, letting them jam out.
With the show closer, “Blessed,” Williams seemed happy and thankful for our attentiveness, and the audience seemed to realize just how lucky we had been, to be invited so deeply into her life. We’ll be listening to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road with a much deeper understanding of it, now.
Here’s hoping there’s a forthcoming DVD, or a Netflix showcase, or something to document this tour, for people who couldn’t make it out. They missed something special.