There has always been an emotional vulnerability to the music of Lucinda Williams. Roots, blues, country, Americana, call it what you will – above all, hers are songs that find the tender parts: the taste of sweat, the scent of persimmons, the long drive thinking of a lover.
Tonight at the Barbican, that fragility feels amplified. A little over two years ago, Williams suffered a stroke, in the wake of which it seemed unlikely she would return to performing. But this evening she stands on stage, in blue jeans and gold-fringed black shirt, launching into a rendition of her 1998 track Can’t Let Go that acquires new resonance in light of her presence.
Across the two hours of her consummate show, the tone is not so much defiance as a new leaning-in to the precariousness of life. She follows her opening number with the tenacious Protection, then a new song, Stolen Moments, written in tribute to her friend, the late Tom Petty; it’s a gleaming, Heartbreaker-toned track that tells of driving down Sunset, the sun coming in from the west. “I think about you,” the chorus runs.
It turns out Williams has been thinking a great deal about those she has lost. She plays the Lou Reed-penned Pale Blue Eyes in honour of Jeff Beck, and explains how Lake Charles was inspired by Clyde Joseph Woodward III, a dear departed troublemaker “who could cook up a mean pot of gumbo”. Copenhagen, she says, was composed on tour after hearing the news that her manager had passed away suddenly. Partway through the set she pauses and addresses the audience in her lounging Louisiana tone: “I feel like I have to apologise, because I have so many songs I’ve written about somebody who’s died …” she says, half smiling. “But it’s cathartic.”
One of the great influences on Williams’ career was her father, the poet Miller Williams, who died in 2015. She leads us into the title track from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road recounting how the first time he heard the song, her father recognised her in its description of a small child on the back seat of a car: “Lookin’ out the window / Little bit of dirt, mixed with tears.”
“Little bit of dirt, mixed with tears” is a fairly accurate description of Williams’ voice. It is a thing not of straightforward beauty, but of sorrow, elasticity and dust. Tonight, buoyed up by a spritz or two of throat spray (“Whatever gets you through the night, right?”), it is by turns briny and tough and radiant, finding all the warmth and fragrance of Fruits of My Labor and the simmering desire of Essence.
Behind Williams stands her all-male backing band, Buick 6: drummer Butch Norton playing a percussive ballet, bassist David Sutton providing a steady steer, and two “badass guitar players”, Stuart Mathis and Doug Pettibone, picking up for the fact that the stroke left Williams unable to play. “But it’s only temporary,” she tells the crowd. “That’s what I’m hoping.”
The temporary nature of things, the art of perseverance, are the themes that run beneath this evening’s songs. Williams crowns the night with a cover of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World, and in its lines she finds something that feels as delicate as it does unyielding: “Keep hope alive,” she sings. “Got fuel to burn / Got roads to drive.”
At the O2 Ritz, Manchester, on 22 January. Then touring.