OAKLAND — It took some time for Lucinda Williams‘ style to gain widespread recognition. Williams was 45 years old when her breakthrough album, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, wowed critics and earned her a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. She performed Saturday at the Fox Theater as part of a tour honoring the 20th anniversary of the album’s release. Between songs, she shared tales related to the album and shed some light on her long trajectory.
“They didn’t know how to market me, or so I was told,” she said. “I was sorta country and sorta rock.”
That formula has worked well for Williams in the intervening years. Since 1998, when Car Wheels came out, she has released seven more albums of original material. She’s fared favorably with critics and established her name as one of the giants of country music. Saturday, it was clear that listeners likewise hold her in high esteem.
For the first part of the set, Williams performed the album in its entirety. Most of the tunes were introduced with lengthy stories about their genesis. Williams was thoroughly comfortable in her role as storyteller, taking her time to roll out unpracticed yarns. She wrote many of the songs about friends who burned brightly. The poetic “Drunken Angel” was about Texas musician Blaze Foley, a ruffian known for raising hell with Townes van Zandt. Williams expressed the difficulty of writing without anger about Foley’s senseless death.
“This one took a while to come together,” she said.
Behind Williams photographs related to each song shown on a screen in montage format. Williams said she was inspired by books of photography at the time of writing the record, especially “Juke Joint,” featuring the photographs of Birney Imes. The chorus for “2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten” was inspired by words that were scrawled onto a wall in one of Imes’ photos. This photo and others drifted in black and white behind Williams’ band, Buick 6.
The trio of country-tinged rockers were airtight playing as a unit. Lanky guitarist Stuart Mathis frequently grabbed the spotlight. His solos were seamless and he coaxed a range of tones from a number of guitars. Mathis’ colorful accents and improvisational style elevated the songs. Bassist David Sutton was relentless. He kept people moving with a subtle sinuous groove. Meanwhile, drummer Butch Norton kept a serious look on his face and a massive cowboy hat on his head as he pummeled the drums. Buick 6 hit surprisingly hard.
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road provided a strong showcase of Lucinda Williams’ songwriting. The songs covered a range of moods, including the energetic Randy-Weeks-penned “Can’t Let Go,” tough-minded “Joy” and the exasperated “Greenville.” “Lake Charles,” she revealed, was for a boyfriend, and “Metal Firecracker” for a lover.
Williams acknowledged the newfound relevance of “Concrete And Barbed Wire” as she questioned the need for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Joy” was a powerful highlight. A kaleidoscopic black-and-white video played behind the band as Williams went into warrior mode. In her sturdy singing voice, she repeatedly declared “You took my joy/ I want it back.” Mathis ripped searing leads that quoted Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” A big rock and roll ending saw Norton stand and pummel a huge ride cymbal with his mallets.
The set concluded with Car Wheels’ peacemaking final track, “Jackson,” after which the stage cleared. A brief interim of urgent audience cheering ensued before Williams returned alone to perform “Ghosts of Highway 20.” The song’s eerie chord changes twinkled from Williams’ guitar as she swayed and rocked in cold blue stage lights. It was the quietest and most subdued moment of the night.
After that, the rest of the band rejoined Williams for more hard-edged rock. Gone were the spoken word interludes as the band went for a less-talk-more-music approach. Williams picked up a Telecaster for signature song “Changed The Locks,” performed as a crunchy guitar romp. Another strong declaration followed in “Foolishness,” as Williams banished liars, racism and hate from her life. During a modified chorus, she emboldened the audience with declarations.
“I need freedom in my life! I need love in my life!” she shouted above the momentum of the music.
The band left the stage again on this high note, but it wasn’t over yet. The final encore began with “Righteously,” a saucy ode to the pleasures of real love. Then Williams surprised with an amped-up cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World.” In a convincing rendition, Williams had concertgoers sing the chorus after rising to their feet. It was a triumphant finish to a show that, like Williams’ career, built up steadily and gathered steam along the way.
Follow writer Alexander Baechle at Instagram.com/writheinsmoke.