Williams Debuts New Album, Plays to Sold-out Crowd at Mary D'Angelo Performing Arts Center

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011 at 9:47 AM
Williams Debuts New Album, Plays to Sold-out Crowd at Mary D'Angelo Performing Arts Center by Ben Speggen

Other than CDs I picked up here and there and songs that I had heard through the years, I didn’t know Lucinda Williams much. To me, she was the singer/songwriter who’d pop into my life unannounced, crash in my living room for a fun week or two, and then take off without notice, leaving me with a sink full of dishes but a sweet sounding collection of songs that would remain on my backburner as I’d be on the lookout for the next time she’d show up in town without much warning.

As someone who looks for great lyrical content and is willing to sacrifice singing ability, I appreciated Williams’s straightforward writing. To me, a music lover who doesn’t listen to all that much country music, she was the sort of country I could settle down with: no frills and some clichés, but a whole lot of heart and soul.

But still, I kept getting the feeling that something more was happening in Williams’s world that I hadn’t been let in on. Our relationship still felt formal and awkward, and anytime I tried talking with people who seemingly knew her better than I did, they’d beam with this energy they couldn’t quite describe, couldn’t nail down other than I had to see her. This left me cold and confused.  

But maybe that’s because so far, I only knew the studio version of Williams. Yes, the studio version. The Williams who released her first album in ’78 and the same Williams who continued to release albums for the next 31 years as she darn well pleased. The Williams, who I got the impression, aimed to please no one and aimed to share some good stories, regardless of whether she had written them. And that seemed to be working out just fine for her as she picked up numerous Grammy nods and three Grammy wins.

So instead of letting her crash my living room as I’d peel off the cellophane hugging whatever album I’d bumped shoulders with in whatever record shop to toss it on and sit back to listen to what she’d been up to, I met her at her place. And last night, her place happened to be the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center at Mercyhurst College.

Known for being a perfectionist, Williams offered herself up in the most vulnerable way: just her, an old sunburst Gibson acoustic, and a tiny Fender amp. This, it seemed, was all she needed, and possibly all she’d ever need. No band, no frills. Just her and a room full of people ready to listen to some stories ranging from the tender “Passionate Kisses” to raw and edgy “Can’t Let Go.”

On the day her latest album hit the shelves, Williams  rolled into Erie on a warm winter afternoon and walked out onto the stage of the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center that cool evening to a warm crowd eager to hear anything from her catalogue that spans more than three decades. From the first note with her cry into the mic: “Are you all right,” she seemed poised to sing to each person as if he or she was the only one there. And somehow, that rawness of the performance would remain the same for the next 23 songs she’d offer up as a “come get to know me” for those who didn’t—a lucky crowd I happen to be among—and a “how’ve you been since last time?” for those who did.

Between “Ventura” and “Greenville,” Williams opened up to the crowd beyond chord and notes. “This is a nice sounding room,” she told the sold-out crowd on the Tuesday night. “And you all are a great audience.”

Williams’s shifts from whispering to belting seemed effortless through her hour-and-a-half long show that moved and swayed just as she did on stage from country to folk to blues to rock to country and back. And perhaps that’s the beauty of a Lucinda Williams show-- you get exactly what you came to see: Lucinda Williams, nothing more, nothing less, but a whole lot of something special.

On stage, Williams exudes a confidence few achieve, and she seems comfortable in her own skin no matter who’s looking at her or who’s listening to her. Perhaps this is why Dylan LeBlanc, her opening act, complimented her so well.

The shy twenty-something from Williams’s home state of Louisiana admitted a few songs into his half-dozen or so set that he’d nearly turned around and walked off stage. “There’s a lot of people here,” he spoke softly into the mic. “It’s a bit scary.”

LeBlanc, the product you’d get if you combined the likes Ray LaMontagne with Fionn Regan, showed his appreciation for the crowd and seemed happy to be sharing his music in a city he’d never been before. It probably didn’t hurt that he was sharing the stage with Lucinda Williams.

In addition to debuting new material off her new album “Blessed,” Williams later welcomed LeBlanc back to the stage to try something the two had yet to do: a duet of “Jackson,” which allowed LeBlanc to settle back and showcase some nice fret work while Williams did what she does best: sing every note with every ounce of her entire body—all while making it look and seem so simple.

The simplicity of the words she sang, “All the way to Jackson/ I don’t think I’ll miss you much,” capture Williams’s country soul and blues heart through simple, yet fulfilling lyrics. Being the daughter of an award-winning poet might keep anyone from wanting to writing out of fear of comparison, but Williams isn’t looking for that. Instead, she’s looking to tell a story: I’m leaving and I won’t miss you. Simple as that. Nothing more, nothing less.

Williams closed the night with the title track off her new album, which captured an attitude that seems to have stuck with Williams throughout her career: I’ve got the blues, but I’m happy because I’m blessed by all the things around me that make it all worth it. And this was more than enough to get Williams her second standing ovation of the night.

And then suddenly, as I stood clapping, I had the feeling we were now on a first-name basis, Lucinda and I, two souls that could hang out in peace together. She was so personable, so friendly, and so appreciative to be in Erie, Pennsylvania the night her new album came out that even if you found you’re not all that fond of her stories, you can’t help but at least be fond of her and her commitment to being nothing more than herself. No frills, no false impressions, just a whole lot of heart and soul.  

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