Do you know who Lucinda Williams is?
I’m waiting in Toad’s for over an hour with some buddies, getting drunk on a Monday night, surrounded by baby boomers and a couple of grad students, thinking maybe I made a mistake. Maybe Lucinda Williams is the most recent blues fodder for middle-aged VH1ers sick of B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. Maybe she’s finally been overcome by the gritty reality of her life — the heroin, alcoholism and heartbreak in her autobiographical lyrics — and she’s not going to make it onstage after all. Or maybe the three-time Grammy winner and Time magazine’s best American songwriter has become a diva.
On one of several trips to the bathroom during that long, hard wait, a friend of mine actually passed Lucinda on her way up to the stage.
“It’s cool on the left,” she told him.
Williams has a history of rebelliousness, including protest/folk singing in the ’60s, but this seemed a little random. But once she stepped onstage and started singing “Passionate Kisses,” it was clear she wasn’t there to mess around.
Lucinda Williams is sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Mary Chapin Carpenter made a more popular, sweeter version of the song in the ’90s — enough to win Lucinda a Grammy for songwriting — but Lucinda doesn’t do sweet. Lucinda does sad, bitter, demanding, broken, furious, sexy. In her tight blue jeans, black tank top, leather jacket and shaggy blonde hair, she is a blues singer, a poet, a guitarist, a rock star who puts on a show that can only be described in expletives of enthusiastic awe.
And she’s got a damn good band to back her: Doug Pettibone on guitar, Taras Prodaniuk on bass and Jim Christie on drums. In a lineup that included songs from her past three albums, not one song failed to come across full force. Although a little disturbed by folks my parents’ age head-bobbing and grinding to songs like “Righteously” (my mom really likes that song), the intimacy of Toad’s was ideal.
As Lucinda herself said, “I so much prefer these kinda shows.”
The show never slowed down. Towards the end of the set, Williams bit into “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings,” from her most recent album, “World Without Tears.” A Stones-esque song replete with raging guitar solos, it was like watching a duel between Williams and Pettibone.
But I just about died when Lucinda set into the finale, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Come to Me Baby.” Williams began this song seductively, but her infamous attitude really came through when, about five minutes into the song, a group at the bar cheered for the baseball game. Lucinda and the band just went wild on stage. As a friend put it, you could tell she was pissed, as the former sensuality of “Come to Me Baby” turned hostile. It sounded like a very dangerous proposition put to an ex she was about to skin alive. I’ve never heard anything sexier than that.