Have you ever been afflicted with “seasonal affective disorder”? It’s usually associated with the wintertime blahs. I get deeply depressed once a year, too, but not during the Christmas season — it’s during VMAs season, when the perennially soul-sucking, spirit-quashing, hope-nullifying MTV awards telecast comes back around to send some of us more sensitive music lovers into a dangerous tailspin of nihilism and despair. Thank God, then, for Lucinda Williams, who serendipitously scheduled a five-night run of shows in L.A. that just happened to overlap with VMAs week. I caught all five of Williams’ shows, and it was such an elating experience that even coming home to a late-night TiVo viewing of MTV’s railroad disaster couldn’t harsh my mellow.
This wasn’t just any five-night stand. As advertised, Williams (pictured, on the right, with Emmylou Harris) was playing one of her catalog albums from start to finish each night at the El Rey Theatre, followed by a second set drawing somewhat randomly from her entire body of work. (She’ll do the same thing later this month in New York, splitting the shows between Irving Plaza and Town Hall.) Lately, as you might have noticed, there’s been a trend among rockers to perform acclaimed older albums in their entirety. What used to be the province of classic rockers like the Who and Pink Floyd has been picked up even by more indie-minded veterans: Sonic Youth recently revived the entirety of Daydream Nation, Lou Reed brought Berlin back, and Iggy and the Stooges are bringing audiences the complete Raw Power, to name just a few examples. But setting out to play every song you ever recorded, over the course of successive shows in a single city? Ay, there’s a stunt to separate the girls from the women.
addCredit(“Emmylou Harris: Chris Willman”)
I’ll admit I approached attending all five nights as a bit of astunt myself, if not an endurance test. I hadn’t seen that many showsin a row by the same artist since Elvis Costello did his own legendaryfive-night stand in L.A. 21 years ago, with a different theme andmostly different bands each night. I wasn’t sure Williams’ shows wouldbe quite different enough to similarly offer quintuple the pleasure.But, as with that long-distant Costello run of shows, the nights spentin her company will end up rating as one of the most satisfying musicalweeks of my life, and I even felt bereft staying in the night after itwas all over. (For consolation, I pulled out a sad song of hers about atoo-brief affair, “Those Three Days” — which goes, “Did you love meforever, just for those three days” — and changed the lyric to “five”for my own sullen purposes.)
How often do we wish we had the time to go back and completelyreabsorb the catalog of our favorite artists, but never do? So imagine then, that experience with the artist actually performing those songs live — sometimes providing better, more contemporary arrangementsthan appeared on those ancient records. It’s fun to reevaluate thornierprojects in the context of an entire career, too. Naturally, it was Williams’ third night at the El Rey that sold out first, the evening devoted to1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which is probably theflagship album of Americana, if you’re willing to consider that agenre. With co-producer Steve Earle sitting in on most of its songs,you’d be hard-pressed to offer any sort of downwardly revisionist takeon its every-track-a-gem greatness. But I developed a new appreciationfor its followup, 2001’s Essence, which had been just asmidgen too sedate for my tastes at the time; in the context of amarathon career retrospective, I couldn’t have been happier that thisunderappreciated (by me, anyway) recording had its own lonesome-embersvibe that set it completely apart from any other Williams record.
It’s tempting to call Williams the ultimate anti-Britney, but maybethere was just one thing these sets had in common with Spears’ MTVperformance. If Britney seemed to be engaging in an open rehearsal, so,at times, did Lucinda — although Spears was only on stage for a fewminutes, while Williams performed more than 80 different tunes over thecourse of the week. And if there were two or three moments each nightwhen she and the band ended up gradually negotiating a new arrangementright in front of us, it was pretty forgivable, not to mentionrevealing and endearing. (If you want to hear these new versions of oldchestnuts for yourself, occasional false starts and all, Williams’website will soon be offering CD recordings of each night’s first set,just like the ones that were made immediately available after the concert.)
Guests at the shows included Shelby Lynne (hanging all over Williamsand looking like she was about to instigate a makeout session during”Still I Long for Your Kiss”), Lynne’s sister (and Earle’s wife)Allison Moorer, John Doe, E of the Eels, Heartbreaker Mike Campbell,ex-Door Robbie Krieger (soloing on her “Unsuffer Me” and his “Riders onthe Storm”), and longtime co-harmonizer Jim Lauderdale. Emmylou Harrisspent an inordinately gratifying amount of time on stage the finalnight. Showing up on opening night, Heart’s Ann Wilson called Williams”our most precious American poet”… echoing Time magazine, which once famously labeled her America’s best songwriter. Those are heady words, Wilson’s and Time‘s— there’s this Bob Dylan guy who’s pretty good, too, you know — butwhat does seem fairly definitive is that we don’t have anysinger/songwriter this great who is also this guileless. There’s acertain kind of cunning in even the most honestly felt work of Dylan,Springsteen, Costello, and the other obvious hall-of-famers, but, atthis rarefied level, anyway, Williams stands alone in her lack ofaffectation and complete and utter open-heartedness. Five nights spentin the company of that warmth, lack of pretension, and expert feel forlanguage and swing could spoil you even for her fellow rock & rollgreats… let alone whoever John Norris was gushing over on the TiVoback at the house.
Now, a question for you, readers. Who among your musical favoriteswould you like to see revisit their entire catalog, album by album, ina multiple-night residency? Or do you figure that’swhat iPods were invented for — that hearing every single album track,even by your favorite artist, is an indulgence you can livewithout? Do weigh in, PopWatchers, because I know Ryan Adams isbreathlessly waiting to hear your feelings, so he can decide whether togo ahead with that 43-night stand in your city this fall.