Lucinda Williams’ New ‘Sweet Old World’

IMG_4827The increasingly popular ploy of celebrating a classic album on its anniversary came a little differently to Lucinda Williams.

Instead of performing the original work top to bottom in front of a backdrop of the cover, her show at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington Monday was preceded by a completely re-recorded version of the sublime, 25-year-old “Sweet Old World.”

On it, she changed the pace of a couple of songs, occasionally added new lyrics, switched the order of the tracks, changed the title of one song and even, finally, the title of the album to “This Sweet Old World.”

As she played it — in yet another order — with her tasty three piece touring band known as Buick Six, its essence was still there: the sharply detailed, clear lyrics; the overarching sense of loss; the lovely melodies. If anything the years added a depth to her mournful tunes, so many of which dealt with untimely death that she introduced one as “another song, another boy, another suicide.”

As she explained in often lengthy introductions for each selection, not all of the death occurred at one time. The original “Sweet Old World” was a struggle done over a period of time; its songs referring to real people who had died over the course of her life then. They included her troubled “Little Angel, Little Brother,” an admired poet in “Pineola,” and the memory of a young poet she knew in the 70s said to be “too sensitive for this world” that became the album’s title song, reminding him of all the earthly things he’d miss when he took his life: “The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone’s ring, someone calling your name…”

There was loss, too, in even the songs that captured happy moments, as the guy with whom she clicked in “Something About What Happens When We Talk” wasn’t seen again after the memorable night she captured.

Not every soul on the album was real, though; Williams says she was experimenting for the first time with writing about characters she only imagined, from the street people in “Sidewalks of the City” and “Memphis Pearl” — songs whose stories she mixed up in her head, so she stopped after starting one of them to set it straight.

Another song, about the doomed life of an accused killer that she had read about in the paper, was the one with the changed title. She switched what had been known as “He Never Got Enough Love” to its original “Drivin’ Down a Dead End Street” — the line that inspired the song in the first place. Originally, she said she was trying to avoid the appearance of copying Bob Dylan, who had released a track with a similar title, “Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dead End Street).”

A quarter century later, hers is the song more people remember; she’s become enough of a terrific songwriter and reliable voice to not only reclaim her original title, but to add a few new verses as well.

Some songs had new approaches. “Lines Around Your Eyes” got a little less insistent; “Prove My Love” comes in a lower key and more of an R&B groove now than the original old time country approach.

She said the hardest thing about the set, and talking about her songs, which included a set of non-Sweet Old World things as well, was that so many people had passed.

She stopped to wipe a tear thinking about her own father before singing about the “Ghosts of Highway 20.” There was rage at the death of Blaze Foley, that she said could have easily also been about Townes Van Zandt, in “Drunken Angel.”

Williams was chosen to play the final three shows Tom Petty would ever play at the Hollywood Bowl in September, so she played both her song that Petty recorded “Changed the Locks” and one of his “Southern Accents,” a song that spoke to her (and her own Louisiana accents).

Even in “Little Angel, Little Brother” there was mention of an even more recent death in rock, her late brother at the piano playing Fats Domino “while I sang all the words.”

But it wasn’t all a reverie for those who were gone. There was time for she and her band of guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist david Sutton and drummer Butch Norton to rock out on “Out of Touch” or add a “Voodoo Chile” lick to the concluding “Joy.”

More importantly there were songs that spoke immediacy to the situation in Washington and the nation, first in “Foolishness” to which she added racism, sexism, hate and walls to the list that already included the liars and fear-mongers she had had enough of.

And returning for her encore, she had a strong new song she’d been playing on tour meant to bolster spirits in bleak times, with a timeless sounding gospel sound and a vow to stick to one’s guns, “We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Around,” that sounds like just the elixir needed to move forward.

The setlist for Lucinda Williams Monday was:

  • “Six Blocks Away”
  • “Something About What Happens When We Talk”
  • “Driving Down a Dead-end Street”
  • “Sweet Old World”
  • “Little Angel, Little Brother”
  • “Pineola”
  • “Lines Around Your Eyes”
  • “Prove My Love”
  • “Sidewalks of the City”
  • “Memphis Pearl”
  • “Hot Blood”
  • “Which Will”
  • “The Ghost of Highway 20″
  • “Lake Charles”
  • “Southern Accents”
  • “Bitter Memory”
  • “Drunken Angel”
  • “Out of Touch”
  • “Changed the Locks”
  • “Essence”
  • “Foolishness”
  • “We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Around”
  • “Joy”

 

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