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Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone
As a rule, you can divide music into three categories -- the kind that aims for the head, the kind that aims for the heart and the kind that aims for the hips. Forging two of those connections at once is pretty impressive, but connecting on all three? That’s a rare accomplishment indeed, one that Lucinda Williams manages on her 11th studio album, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone.
Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, the first release on Lucinda Williams’ own Highway 20 Records label, is easily the most ambitious creation in a body of work that’s long on ambition. Over the course of two discs, Williams leaves no emotional crevice left unexplored, drinking deeply from a well of inspiration that culminates with an offering that overflows with delta-infused country soul.
Williams wrings every drop of affirmation from uplifting tracks like the empowering “Walk On” (a loping paean to life’s most sustaining aspects, the fleeting and the permanent) and every whit of dark beauty from songs such as “This Old Heartache” (a stark reminder that churning psychic waters can lurk beneath a placid surface).
“I felt like I was really on a roll when we started working on the album,” says Williams, who produced the album with Greg Leisz and her husband Tom Overby. “I usually have enough songs to fill an album, and maybe a couple more, but when I started writing for this, the inspiration just kept coming, and the people I was working with kept telling me the songs were worth keeping. It’s not like I was reinventing the wheel -- there are only so many things you can write about, love, sex, death, redemption, and they’re all here -- but I felt like I was really in a groove here.”
There’s no disputing the immediacy of the set’s offerings, both the most hard-edged (like “West Memphis,” which extrapolates a hardscrabble landscape from the story of the wrongly-convicted West Memphis Three) and the softly caressing (the bittersweet “When I Look at the World”). As ever, she uses words to ensnare her audience, sometimes with an arm around the shoulder, sometimes with hands grabbing the lapels, and sonics to hold that crowd’s rapt attention.
But here, Williams pushes herself as a vocalist as well, making the most of both her instrument’s honeyed warmth and its sandpaper-to-the-soul toughness. She un-tethers herself more fully than she has in ages, or possibly ever. “I felt really comfortable and happy when I was singing, and sort of on my toes a little, since I was working with a lot of new musicians, not just my regular band,” she says. “Putting different people together in different combinations, there was a lot of room to maneuver – a lot of room to make little changes that really made things click.”
That list of “new musicians” is peppered with names that will be familiar to most rock and roll aficionados. This includes longtime Elvis Costello collaborators Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher, guitarist Bill Frisell, iconic Faces keyboardist Ian McLagen, guitarist Stuart Mathis from the Wallflowers, vocals from Jakob Dylan and the distinctive guitar tones of Tony Joe White. Her longtime rhythm section of David Sutton and Butch Norton provides a rock solid foundation on a passel of the tunes, and Leisz -- who she credits as “the glue that holds the whole thing together” -- adds ornamentation in all the right places.
While there’s no shortage of eureka moments on Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, Lucinda digs deepest on “Compassion,” which is based on a poem that was published in 1997 by her father Miller Williams -- who read at President Clinton’s second inauguration. She says the homage was a long time in coming.
“It was challenging, to say the least,” she says. “For years, I’ve wanted to take one of his poems and turn it into a song. You really have to take the poem apart and put it back together, you can’t just sing it as is. Tom had said he felt it might work with ‘Compassion,’ so I finally started working on it and came up with something. I told my father about it and he loved the idea, which made me really proud.”
“He had always maintained that there’s a clear differentiation between songs and poems. When I’ve shown him something I thought might become poem, he always just says ‘Honey, I think it wants to be a song.’”
Lucinda Williams has been maneuvering down a path all her own for more than three decades now, emerging from Lake Charles, Louisiana (a town with a rich tradition in all of America’s indigenous music, from country to the blues) having been imbued with a “culturally rich, economically poor” worldview. Several years of playing the hardscrabble clubs of her adopted state of Texas gave her a solid enough footing to record a self-titled album that would become a touchstone for the embryonic Americana movement – helping launch a thousand musical ships along the way.
While not a huge commercial success at the time – it went out of print and stayed there for years – Lucinda Williams (aka, the Rough Trade album) retained a cult reputation, and finally got the reception it deserved upon its reissue earlier this year. Jim Farber of New York’s Daily News hailed the reissue by saying “Listening again proves it to be that rarest of beasts: a perfect work. There’s not a chord, lyric, beat or inflection that doesn’t pull at the heart or make it soar.” In calling it “a masterpiece,” Blurt magazine dubbed it “a discovery worth making and music that will live in your heart and mind long after the disk stops spinning.”
For much of the next decade, she moved around the country, stopping in Austin, Los Angeles, Nashville, and turning out work that won immense respect within the industry (winning a Grammy for Mary Chapin Carpenter’s version of “Passionate Kisses”) and a gradually growing cult audience. While her recorded output was sparse for a time, the work that emerged was invariably hailed for its indelible impressionism -- like 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which notched her first Grammy as a performer.
The past decade brought further development, both musically and personally, evidenced on albums like West (2007), which All Music Guide called “flawless…destined to become a classic” and Blessed (2011), which the Los Angeles Times dubbed “a dynamic, human, album, one that’s easy to fall in love with.” Those albums retained much of Williams’ trademark melancholy and southern Gothic starkness, but also exuded more rays of light and hope -- hues that were no doubt imparted by a more soothing personal life, as well as a more settled creative space.
Those vibes come to the fore once again on Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. While she stays very much rooted in the here and now, Williams also conjures up the spirit of classic ‘70s country soul -- the province of Dan Penn, Bobbie Gentry and Tony Joe White. The resulting warmth of tone gives the album a late-night front-porch vibe -- one that could be accompanied by either a tall glass of lemonade or something a little stronger, all the better to let the sounds envelop the listener like a blanket of dewy air.
“I didn’t set out to do a whole album of country-soul, but once I started working, a stylistic thread kind of emerged,” she says. “It’s a sound I can relate to, one that’s really immediate and really timeless at the same time -- kind of sad in an indefinable way. It’s like something my dad said to me many years ago, something I wrote down and included in my song “Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing)” because it was so profound to me -- ‘the saddest joys are the richest ones.’ I think that fits this album really well.”
"This year's honorary doctorate recipients are being recognized for their achievements and influences in music, and for their enduring contributions to American and international culture.
Hailed by Time magazine as "America's best songwriter," Lucinda Williams is a three-time Grammy winner whose distinctive style, expressive voice, and deeply personal songwriting made her one of the most critically acclaimed artists of her era." - Berklee Online
berklee.edu Songwriter, producer, recording artist, and pioneer of multimedia and computer technology, Todd Rundgren, will be this year’s commencement speaker, and will address more than 1,000 Berklee graduates on Saturday, May 13, at the Agganis Arena.
ANNAPOLIS, MD 5/8 - SET LIST Rams Head Live
To say that we had two very eventful days in Annapolis would be putting on extra mild sauce. It’s all too lengthy to go into here so we will do it separately time permitting, but let’s just say it would make a couple of chapters of The Tour Bus Diaries. Anyway, it was a great show in the intimate room at Ram’s Head. Right off the bat the tone of the show was set with one of the best versions of Blessed that we’ve played in a while. Born To Be Loved finally made it back into the setlist for the first time in at least a year and Lu and band thought it sounded great. Are You Alright almost made it, but it will get in there soon. Ventura and Metal Firecracker were also first timers for this run. It’s small but Rams Head is a fun room to play - no doubt about it.
- Lucinda mgmt.
PS: Some great photos and review/recap of the show here: http://inspirer.life/home/2017/05/lucinda-rams-head/
One more night until we are in Boston! See you soon!!
SET LIST 5/6 Scottish Rite Auditorium Collingswood, NJ (Philadelphia)
Since I’ve been mentioning out of the way places and great older theaters, The Scottish Rite Auditorium is one of the most unique. The place just has a very mysterious vibe and there was story going around that it used to be some secret society thing - like the Masons or something like that. Don’t know if it’s true but it definitely has feeling unlike any other place we go. But it is definitely is a great sounding room with a great intimate layout.
Lu was happy that she finally got to do the Merle Haggard song Going Where The Lonely Go. She had sung it at a big Haggard tribute in Nashville a few weeks ago and fell in love with the song. She did it with the house band in Nashville so her band had just worked it up. It almost happened in Tarrytown but was not quite ready. I also have to say I think we got more messages and thank you's about this show than any other on this run. It really is great to get those and we appreciate them. We have had such a great run going to so many places we really love and this was no exception.
- Lucinda mgmt.
SET LIST Tarrytown Music Hall 5/4 & 5/5
As I mentioned in the notes about the Dayton show two nights ago, we love finding great off the beaten path places to play and I used Tarrytown as an example as a place we discovered about three years ago and now we are back for the third time playing two nights. The first night is an example about what we’ve come to love about places like this - a very appreciative crowd that as Lu says “listens to the quiet songs and loves it when we rock”. It’s also a great sounding room which is a very big thing for Lu - she wants to people to hear all the words. That pretty much checks off all the boxes that we look for. Bring on night two...
Nothing at all against the audience for night one, but it was a really great Friday/Cinco De Mayo crowd for night two. And as we always do - we completely changed the setlist with only 5 songs repeating from the first night -which meant there were 38 different songs over the two nights. All in all a great two nights in Tarrytown, which has now become a must play tour stop when we’re up in the Northeast.
- Lucinda mgmt.
For detailed Tour Info visit: http://bit.ly/LuTour
DAYTON, OH - SET LIST 5/2 - Victoria Theatre Association
We love to go to places that maybe a lot of people don’t go to very often. The risk is that sometimes there can be an element of unknown and maybe there’s a reason why people don’t play a certain place - they don’t really go out for shows in that town or the show is under promoted by an inexperienced promoter are among the things that can go wrong. The upside is that you find a really appreciative audience and a promoter who really believes in a market and is great to work with. When we find this kinds of places we love to go back - in fact Tarrytown where we are now is an example of that and we are now doing two shows there. We’ve been really fortunate in that more times than not we’ve found these great places to play and I think we may have found another one in Dayton - where Lu had never in anyone’s recollection had ever played. It was apparent very early that Lu felt really good with that audience as she continued to be very talkative. She can sometimes come up with some good one liners as when she introduced Can’t Close The Door On Love by saying “this song is proof that I can actually write a positive love song - imagine that”. Another great night on a really great run of shows. Thank you Dayton for all the love and keep supporting live music - you have a promoter, a hometown boy, who really wants to keep bringing shows there. We can only speak for our great experience on all fronts and we will be back.
Just a few more hours until night two at Tarrytown begins! See you in a bit...