Minneapolis has become something of a second home for Lucinda Williams. Her 2003 release “World Without Tears” included a song called “Minneapolis,” and also “Real Live Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings,” purportedly written about Paul Westerberg of The Replacements. In 2009, she married Minnesota-born Tom Overby onstage at First Avenue, in a post-concert service that was surprisingly moving, given the unholy setting. With her apparent affinity for the Twin Cities, it was no surprise that by the fourth night of her five-night “residency” at the Dakota, she seemed completely at ease; comfortable in her surroundings, friendly and gracious with the crowd, and calm and self-assured in her delivery. None of this detracted from the passion and conviction of her performance – the best of the half-dozen times this writer has seen her.
Following brief opening sets by Ben Kyle (Romantica) and The Kenneth Brian Band, Lucinda and her longtime guitarist, the incomparable Doug Pettibone, took the stage and opened with “Can’t Let Go,” a song written by St. Paulite Randy Weeks – yet another local connection! – from her 1998 masterpiece, “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.” Doug Pettibone was already making his presence felt, with sharp, focused lead and bottleneck slide work on this uptempo breakup song. Reaching back nearly 25 years to her eponymous 1988 release, for the next number, “Big Red Sun Blues,” it was clear that Lucinda was going to make the most of her deep catalogue by sprinkling her set list with obscure gems, as well as more familiar favorites.
The title track to “Car Wheels” certainly fell into the latter category. Introducing it, she told a deeply personal story of having debuted the song at the intimate Bluebird Café in Nashville, before an audience that included her father, the writer and poet, Miller Williams. Afterward, he commented that she must have been the little girl in the verse: “Chld in the back seat, about four or five years / Lookin’ out the window”. In complete and convincing sincerity, Lucinda said that she had never realized that until her father pointed it out to her, so complete was her immersion in her writing.
Slowing down the pace, Lucinda next chose the title track to “World Without Tears,” an achingly beautiful ballad that showcased her world-weary voice to its best advantage. Doug Pettibone switched from his Strat to a big hollow body Gretsch for the tender solos on this one, adding understated harmony to Lucinda’s vocals, as he did all night. Keeping the mood somber, Ms. Williams told of having been inspired to write “Memphis Pearl” in 1984, by the sight of a poor woman digging through trash cans, looking for food. The gentle, bluegrass-flavored song tells the story of a fallen angel, a girl whose high hopes and big dreams are sadly unrealized. It is a common theme of Ms. Williams, who relates tales of the downtrodden and those living on the fringes of society, without ever becoming maudlin, condescending or judgmental.
Lucinda kept the mood subdued and intimate with “Tears Of Joy,” a love song to Tom Overby, from her 2008 release, “Little Honey.” Introducing the next song, “I Don’t Know How You’re Living,” Lucinda noted that it was written for her younger brother, “who I haven’t seen in many years.” Incredibly sad and moving, featuring sublime echo-effect guitar work by Doug Pettibone, the pairing of the song with “Tears Of Joy” was breathtaking. Where “Tears Of Joy” celebrates the emotional catharsis of falling deeply in love, “Don’t Know” reminds us of the pain and longing that comes from being estranged from someone we were once close to. “I don’t know how you’re living / I don’t know where you are / And you may not be willing / To open up the door.” The yin and yang of interpersonal relations, encapsulated in two songs. Stunning.
To bring us out of our doldrums, at least momentarily, Lucinda debuted a new song, “Stowaway,” a mid-tempo rocker that’s sure to appear on her next album. “Born To Be Loved,” from her most recent album, “Blessed,” was next, followed by “Everything Is Changed,” from 2007’s “West,” featuring Miss Lily Mae Rische from The Kenneth Brian Band on fiddle. Lily Mae and her fiddle stuck around for “Jailhouse Tears,” giving the song a more country, less rocking feel than the studio version (that paired Lucinda with guest vocalist Elvis Costello). The ease with which Lucinda traded verses with Doug Pettibone erased all the bad memories of her tortured attempt at the song during her 2008 First Avenue appearance – simulcast on the internet – when she stopped and started the song four times before finally being able to finish it.
Returning to the land of broken dreams and tragic characters, Lucinda noted that “you meet a lot of beautiful losers in this business,” and told the story of Blaze Foley, a gifted songwriter whose songs have been recorded by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and John Prine, among others. But, possessed by his own demons, he barely eked out a living on the fringes of society before being shot and killed in a senseless confrontation. “Drunken Angel” from the “Car Wheels” album is Lucinda’s tribute to this singular talent, whose life and death are straight out of a Greek tragedy.
The tempo picked up and the set list continued its wide range thereafter, as Lucinda debuted another new song, a driving, soulful number that might be titled “I Need Protection (From The Enemy of Love),” followed by the title track to 2001’s “Essence,” with Doug Pettibone producing stinging notes on his Gibson SG. To amp up the proceedings, Lucinda switched from her big Gibson acoustic to a Telecaster for the remainder of the night, starting with a Delta blues number by Little Son Jackson, “Disgusted,” followed by a ferocious version of “Change The Locks,” then a new version of “Joy” (recorded as part of a compilation to support the West Memphis Three), and a hard-rocking ‘Honey Bee” to close out the set.
Before starting the encore, Lucinda complimented the crowd, saying “y’all might be the liveliest audience yet!” She then opened the three-song encore with “Blessed,” an inspired piece of songwriting that takes the biblical Beatitudes and turns them around 180 degrees. Instead of the meek, the humble, the poor in spirit being blessed by the diety, it is we who are blessed by them: “We were blessed by the girl selling roses / Showed us how to live / We were blessed by the neglected child / Who knew how to forgive.” It is a brilliant, thought-provoking piece of songwriting. Not wanting to leave us with anything too heavy, Lucinda brought Lily Mae and the rest of the Kenneth Brian Band back on stage for the rollicking Hank Williams party tune, “Jambalaya,” and a hand-clapping, foot-stomping gospel cover, “You Know You’ve Got To Get Right With God.”
The little girl in the back seat of the car is all grown up now, and she’s moved behind the steering wheel. The tank is full, the engine is well-tuned, and those tires still have a lot of life left in them. The road ahead is wide open and there’s still a lot of this sweet old world left for Lucinda to discover. We’ll all be waiting for her when she swings by next time, to tell us all about it.