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Lucinda Williams bares her soulful side

A review of the Americana artist's set at the Charleston Music Hall

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Lucinda Williams
Charleston Music Hall
Oct. 16

The lyrical theme to Lucinda Williams' intimate concert at the Charleston Music Hall meandered from sorrowful to empowering. From song to song across two full sets, the veteran Americana artist touched on surviving heartbreak, bouncing back from rotten relationships, and achieving a string of personal triumphs.

While some fans consider Williams to be a perfectionist in the studio and on stage, some critics claim she's developed a reputation for a loose and unpolished performance style and a spiky on-stage attitude. On Sunday, Williams sang beautifully and elegantly to a small crowd all evening. Her gracious interaction with the audience couldn't have been sweeter or more sincere.

Williams and her backing trio — longtime bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton with new-guy lead guitarist Blake Mills — opened with the lilting title track to her 2003 album World Without Tears before sauntering into a handful of tunes from Blessed, her brand-new collection of atmospheric blues, alt-country, and folk-rock.

The lanky Mills stood statuesque at stage left. He switched guitars between every song, usually swapping various Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster models with a twangy Danelectro. Sutton played a mellow-toned hollow-bodied electric most of the night, occasionally grabbing a full-sounding upright for the slower, quieter songs. Norton's tasteful brush work on the snare and cymbals contrasted with his beefy rock fills on the loudest tunes.

Williams' voice soared with a rich vibrato on "Jackson" and "I Don't Know How You're Livin'," a teary dedication to her younger brother. She mentioned her connection to Cartoon Network's Squidbillies series (she provided voices and music for an episode last year) in the first of several amusing little stories of the evening as she introduced "Copenhagen," one of the saddest songs of the first set. Enlivened by a terrific slide solo from Mills with a guitarless Williams on the mic, "Born to Be Loved" swayed in a waltzy time signature. Her rendition of Bob Dylan's "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" (featured on an upcoming Amnesty International compilation) went over well, too.

Mills' jazzy country chords, staccato fingerpicking, and slide work enhanced every song. He expanded his array of tones and effects, emulating the sounds of the organ, piano, fuzz-bass, pedal steel, and Hawaiian guitar. Norton's spare snare and cymbal work and Sutton's propulsive bass lines complemented Mills' chiming cacophony.

The second set picked up the pace quite noticeably with the opener "Concrete and Barbed Wire." Williams and her bandmates never sped things up past the medium tempo mark, but they rocked with a louder, more emphatic style. Her version of audience fave "Drunken Angel" stomped hard. She described the song "Buttercup" — the muscular and soulful lead-off track on Blessed — as the final chapter of "Jailhouse Tears" (off of previous album Little Honey).

The funky blue-rocker "Righteously" and the sassy and powerful "You Took My Joy" brought more than a few fans to their feet (and into the aisles) and helped accelerate the set to a dynamic closer of "Honey Bee," another rocker from Little Honey. "Blessed" opened the three-song encore demanded by the invigorated fans. 

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