Continuing their recent tradition of incorporating a handful of roots-rock acts in their eclectic vision of high-culture arts programming, Spoleto USA brought one of the true legends of Americana to Charleston this past Wednesday, Louisiana-born Lucinda Williams. The daughter of acclaimed Southern poet and literature professor Miller Williams, the singer/songwriter has had a tumultuous, storied career, from her early Folkways Record releases to the painstaking birth of one the genre’s all-time classics, Care Wheels on a Gravel Road, which was released in 1998. Since then Williams has enjoyed steady sales and plenty of critical regard, but seems to have worked in the shadow of her greatest achievement.
That’s not to say, of course, that she hasn’t remained an exacting and engaging writer, as she’s capable of writing songs of anger and joy, lust and longing, with a sense of economy and painterly level of detail. Plus she's always had a one-of-kind weathered voice that's capable of a similarly broad palette of emotion. But it is to say that her arguably best material was released in the 1990s, on Car Wheel and 1992’s Sweet Old World. That the Spoleto set leaned heavily on newer material suggests that Williams will continue to be a relevant artist, even if her concert appearances are perhaps not as engaging because of it.
Leading a hot band through the paces, Williams sprinkled a number of new songs throughout the night that incorporated much of the band-oriented material from her last two records, Little Honey (2008) and Blessed (2011), that allowed her to showcase her sidemen's chops, particularly the explosive solos of electric guitarist Stuart Mathis, a longtime guitarist for the Wallflowers. Mathis’ presence was key to the performance’s success, as the long instrumental passages made it difficult for Williams’ songwriting prowess to hold center stage for long. And while the set was peppered with stories and asides from the songwriter, and she was in fine vocal form for much of the night, too much of her time was spent playing the effacing frontman for the long jam-laden blues and rock excursions through some of her weaker material.
In my mind, the real highlight of the show was when Williams emerged for an encore with nothing but her acoustic guitar and sang “Passionate Kisses,” one of her most commercially successful tunes. Despite how good the band was, I would much rather have had a few more of Williams’ compositions in that more haunting and heartbreaking minimalist setting. That's not to say the night wasn't quite enjoyable, and kudos to Spoleto for bringing one of the true songwriting (and singing) greats to the Holy City, but I'm still left wishing for what could have been. –Kyle Petersen