Lucinda Williams, Buick 6
House of Blues
April 28, 2016
I've seen Lucinda Williams many times, in all sorts of settings: killing it at packed-out clubs, fighting the sound system at outdoor festivals, late-night gigs that weren't quite going her way, even rocking her own wedding party at Minneapolis's First Avenue. There's always a slight air of mystery surrounding what she's going to sound like, closely tied to what kind of mood she's in. That's what makes her so captivating, whether it's a good night or not.
That mystery extends to her set lists, which are far from static. Houston lucked out Thursday, when fully half of the material was different from Monday's show at UT-Austin's Hogg Auditorium. Too bad more people weren't there to see it, but the relatively cozy crowd at House of Blues did mean fewer nerve-rattling audience conversations and ridiculous requests destined to go unheeded. I felt bad for the poor bastard who must have yelled out for “Everything But the Truth” — in vain — after every song, but hopefully its absence did not totally spoil an excellent outing by Williams and her three-piece backup band Buick 6 for him.
Otherwise known as instrumental badasses Stuart Mathis (guitar), David Sutton (bass) and Butch Norton (drums), Buick 6 loosened up with a brief opening set that showcased songs from their new album Plays Well With Others, plus tributes to the dearly departed Prince and David Bowie via “Sexy MF” and “The Man Who Sold the World.” Fluid, versatile and perfectly in sync with one another, the trio came across like a jazz group that happens to play roots music – but would easily slip off into the realm of unmitigated jamming if left to their own devices.
Backing up Williams, Buick 6 applied their dexterity to the slow-grinding country-funk grooves of “West Memphis” and “Changed the Locks”; righteous gospel-blues (“Doors of Heaven,” featuring an extra-righteous guitar solo by Mathis); and seething, angry rock (“Come On”). But no matter the tone, the band knew exactly how to feel out whatever pocket the song called for, and then massage it for all it was worth. Their chops came back to the fore during “Are You Down?” a track from 2001's Essence that began ominous and mysterious – it actually felt like the players were trying to “force the rain back in the sky,” per Williams's lyrics – before she walked offstage to admire their handiwork from the wings, culminating in a feverish Santana-esque climax. It was also a rare moment in the set, maybe the only one, that didn't 100 percent reflect the personality of the evening's headliner.
Thursday was obviously a special moment for Williams, who lived here long ago. Yes, artists say that all the time, but Thursday it really felt like it. “I picked out these songs for a reason,” she said early in the evening, her first show in the Bayou City since May 2014 at Warehouse Live. “Most of them have something to do with Houston or New Orleans, the Gulf Coast.” Thus we were treated to Car Wheels On a Gravel Road classics “Drunken Angel,” “Lake Charles,” “I Lost It” and more: songs where Williams's connection to this part of the world shows up lyrically, in the lovelorn waitress-heroine from Beaumont of “The Night's Too Long”; and musically, in the hint of Cajun seasoning that seeps into Sweet Old World's “Lines Around Your Eyes.”
That thread carries straight into Williams's most recent work, 2014's Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone and February's The Ghosts of Highway 20. She noted that she thinks of Highway 20 as “Car Wheels Part 2...this time I'm driving the car, looking out the window.” “Bitter Memory,” a chipper bit of country-blues finger-picking that could have been written in 1936, showed how much history continues to press on the region, as did Highway 20's title track, where Williams almost slipped into a trance-like state reciting the “Southern secrets, buried deep” that continue to haunt the present.
Neither is it a secret how much, well, “Foolishness” remains around here. Invoking the old superstition that speaking the name of your tormentor will drive him/her/it away, here Williams applied it to various isms one might expect, turning the Spirit Meets the Bone track into a sort of exorcism ritual. As the isms piled up, the band's intensity increased, and both Trump and his infamous border wall got some pretty good pops from the crowd.
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From there on out, Williams and Buick 6 took it home with a stretch of songs that turned up the funk and turned up the heat — “Changed the Locks,” “Essence,” “Joy” and “Honeybee,” dipping a bit of Led Zep's “Heartbreaker” into “Joy” and the Allman Brothers' “It's Not My Cross to Bear” into the encore. Just like Gregg Allman, Lucinda Williams is a Southern survivor whose personal history is deeply intertwined with that of her homeland, and whose music reveals facets of who we as Southerners are, and what we share, that we could never realize on our own.
The Night's Too Long
I Lost It
Lines Around Your Eyes
Ghosts of Highway 20
Can't Close the Door On Love
Doors of Heaven
Are You Down?
Changed the Locks
It's Not My Cross to Bear (Allman Brothers song)
Get Right With God