It’s hard to indict an entire genre, but it’s also hard to disagree with Lucinda Williams when she says “(Country music) is horrible today. Believe it or not, country used to be edgier.” On Sunday night Willilams proved that country can still be radio-friendly and fierce. Her nearly two-hour set had the predominantly older crowd rowdier than usual, cheering madly after every obscenity. Williams and her road-worn backing band’s combination of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson inspired stoned-country, and Louisiana pride got standing ovations after nearly every song.
Williams opened with “Pineola,” a crowd favorite, and followed it with the Byrds-ian “Drunken Angel,” from her most acclaimed album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The band started to cook with a little grease on the somber slow-burner, “Fruits of Our Labor.” Williams’s backing group – guitarist Doug Pettibone, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Jim Christie A– was in top form. Pettibone was especially impressive, varying his guitar sound each song and never stepping on Williams’s heels.
Even more impressive was the new material Williams debuted. Songs like “Learning How to Live,” “What If” and “Where is My Love?” matched her notoriously high standards. Her uncompromising lyrics are as divisive as ever, but the new song “Jailhouse Tears,” rumored to be recorded as a duet with Hank Williams III, may be the commercial breakthrough she deserves. Considered one of the top songwriters of the last 20 years, she’s been held back by a reluctance to bow to major-label pressure to release songs aimed at country radio.
Williams has deftly mixed songs from all eras of her career. She sounded particularly sultry on the self-pronounced “hip-a-billy” track “Righteously,” and carried the momentum from that song through the Paul Westerberg inspired “Real Life Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings.”
The encore was highlighted by “Crescent City,” an ode to New Orleans, and Grammy-winning “Get Right With God.” The largest cheers of the night weren’t for her music; however, but for her politics: She declared, “Fuck politics; It’s all about getting right with God. Even George W. Bush has to get right with God. After all, you gotta serve somebody.”