Lucinda Williams review – battle-scarred star burns bright

Barbican, London
The singer brings poignancy and raw feeling to this revealing celebration of her defining album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams is celebrating last year’s 20th anniversary of her career-making, genre-spawning album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, yet the years of being misunderstood and deemed unmarketable still rankle. “It took an English punk-rock label to get me,” she muses. Rough Trade took a chance on Williams’s devastatingly direct tales of the American south and finely wrought roots, blues, rock, and folk and her success birthed the scene.

For this reappraisal, Williams is keeping things personal. Behind her black-clad frame, a huge screen plays home movies of the 66-year-old artist as a fresh-faced young woman and she shares photos, memories and insights while winding her way through each track of the seminal release.

Right in Time is accompanied by the image of a poster from 1998 with the tagline: “She sings like an angel with a broke [sic] heart – fact.” Williams’s vocals are now battle-scarred, their past smooth levity broken by brutal experience. This rich difference gives gems such as Concrete and Barbed Wire, Lake Charles and Drunken Angel a harsh new poignancy, while Joy and I Lost It burn with a fiery potency enlivened by her dexterous backing band, Buick 6. Her banter about lost loves, cherished landscapes and lyrical inspiration are just as entertaining. We learn she’s no fan of Trump or Johnson and only ever “made out” on a tour bus – although she is more stoical raconteur than entertainer.

For the second half of the two and-a-half hour show, she explores more of her multifaceted sound, from the acapella spiritual Faith and Grace to playful stomper HoneyBee. “How could I not want to play rock and roll?” she grins. “It’s so much fun!” It’s 2016’s haunting Ghosts of Highway 20, however, that proves a perfect bookend to this revealing trip down memory lane, with Williams revisiting her past with maturity and concluding: “Who I am now is who I was then.”

• At 02 Academy, Bristol, 28 July; Brighton Dome, 29 July. Then touring.


Betty Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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