One of the great benefits of living outside of Boston is The Lowell Summer Music Festival. It's a non-profit concert series put on outdoors (weather permitting), usually featuring well-known, moderately popular acts performing in a little, outdoor park. Among the acts I have seen there are Mick Taylor, Nils Lofgren, Guy Clark, Peter Noone, Hot Tuna, Leon Russell, and, with my kids, The Fab Four. The tickets were in the $10 range, $15 for bigger acts. Children were free. Capacity is about 1500.
This year, they've upgraded to bigger acts, with prices raised accordingly, but still a bargain compared to seeing these musicians in other venues. For this summer, there were two acts I especially wanted to see: Richard Thompson and Lucinda Williams. Luckily I got to see both. Thompson started off the summer series with a solo show, and blew everyone away. Combing over his four decade career, RT cherry-picked some of his best and most well-known (considering his cult status) songs, mostly from his time with Capitol Records. Of course he also performed some new songs (joking that he still has plenty of his most recent CDs stock-piled, waiting to be sold), including a song about Iraq ("Dad's Gonna Kill Me", with "Dad" being slang for "Baghdad"), and "Hot For the Smarts", a tribute to intelligent women. Thompson also dipped back deep into his Fairport Convention days for a cover of singer Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where The Time Goes", and even further back for a Jerry Lee Lewis rocker, "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee," to end the evening. His voice still resonates, and his deft guitar picking (especially on "1952 Vincent Black Lightning") often made it sound like two guitarists were playing simultaneously. (You can hear the show here : http://mvyradio.com/music_info/lowell_summer_concerts.php)
I was initially ambivalent about seeing Lucinda. The first time I saw her, back in 1999, she was the opening act for Richard Thompson at The Orpheum in Boston. People told me I would like her, but she didn't make much of an impression on me at the time. However, when I heard the 2001 album, "Essence", I was hooked. I became a huge fan, started collecting her music, and seeing her every time I could. I was actually supposed to see her in Maine on September 11, 2001, which, of course, was postponed, and got to meet her when she eventually returned to the Orpheum as a headliner.
It may have been a case of "too much too soon", but recently Lucinda has fallen slightly off of my radar. The "Live @ the Fillmore" album was disappointing to me - after digging up all sorts of great songs in concert, the final selection was chosen from her previous three albums, making the listening experience more of a chore than a pleasure. Then her most recent album, "West", seemed very self-conscious to me. What made me fall in love with Lucinda's music was it's bare-boned honestly. I have never heard a woman singer, before or since, that made me feel like she was holding nothing back, that you knew who she was, and what she was feeling. Not hiding behind poetry or a persona. I was starting to lose interest in her newer material.
However, I had such a great time at the Richard Thompson show, I decided to go see Lucinda again. I thought I knew what to expect : Mostly music from her last four albums, maybe an old blues cover, and a very appealing, self-effacing Lucinda--kidding with the crowd, telling stories, introducing her wonderful band . . . In short, a nice night out on a New England summer evening . However, certain events would happen to make this Lucinda show different from all the others.
The show started innocently enough. The park ranger who MCs the shows announced the great difficulty of securing this concert, since an entire tour was scrapped when John Mellencamp stole Lucinda to be his opening act on his current tour. Her backing band, Buick 6, started with a 30-minute, mostly instrumental, set, covering The Ventures, Led Zeppelin, and Neil Young. After a half hour break, the band returned with Lucinda.
She started with a song from "West", then followed with some more familiar material. Lucinda then sprinkled in some new tunes from an album she said would be out in September. While some people often use this as an excuse for get a beverage, or head for the bathrooms, to me this is usually the highlight of any show. Most people I go to see in concert have on-going careers- they are artists in it for the long-haul, and in most cases still making vital, exciting music. You have the privilege of hearing material that is not yet available. I was hoping to be impressed with Lucinda's new material, and I was. There was a great Lucinda-loves-a-rocker song, plus one that actually sounds like a hit single, entitled "Real Love".
As the show progressed, there were a few problems, the type of things Lucinda usually just laughs off. After introducing "2 Kool 2 Be 4 Gotten", it took the drummer three tries to get it right. Then when Lucinda got to the line about Robert Johnson selling his soul to play guitar, she started to cough. Lucinda, as ever, kept her cool, and suggested starting the song from the top, kidding that maybe it was God's way of telling them that they should not perform that song. Later a bee got into the shirt of one of the guitarists, which led Lucinda to comment ( after saying not to kill it ) that when it comes to bugs, we know who really rules the world. Adding to the summer distractions, the wind kept blowing the pages of Lucinda's lyrics book.
Not too long after, there was an audible request from the right side of the stage - someone yelled out " Play some Pink Floyd ! ". It got a few laughs, and Lucinda countered with "I wish I knew some" , and then continued on, not seeming particularly disturbed. However, after a couple of more songs, including the rocking "Real Love", Lucinda went into this tirade from the stage (not verbatim, but close):
"I don't know what you people want to hear. I try to respond in a funny way to people, but come on, play some Pink Floyd? Do you know how f*cking hard it is to be up here? When you say stuff like that it affects me, it affects the band. Why don't you just f*cking go home. F*cking get out of here." (It sounded like the guy who originally yelled this was trying to respond at this point.) I don't f*cking care! If you don't f*cking like it you can f*cking leave! (Then to the audience:) I hope you didn't f*king pay to get out/get in!"
At this point, Lucinda was on fire. On one hand, you felt bad that she was upset, of course, but you also wondered how the rest of the show was going to go. Would she let it get to her ? Was she mad at the whole crowd, or just that one guy ? Did she think the show was falling apart ?
I'm not sure who is the band Buick 6, since they were never introduced, so I don't know how familiar they are with Lucinda's material. This is one of the few full-length shows on this tour. Maybe Lucinda was a bit on edge playing with a new line-up? I guess we'll never know for sure.
However, one thing was certain: Lucinda took all of that anger and put it into her performance, in a way I've rarely seen by ANY artist, and certainly in such an unexpected way. It felt reminiscent of Bob Dylan going electric in the mid-1960s. Or Public Image Ltd. in 1980. No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more talking with the crowd-- Lucinda meant business. To add to the Dylan metaphor, Lucinda now had an electric guitar strapped on, and she was rocking out. Buick 6 went from a mellow alt-country band into a rocking cohesive unit, bringing The Hawks, and Crazy Horse, to mind.
Lucinda's songs are often about failed love, lost lives, and passion of all types. However, by the time we hear it, she's looking back, very reflective, contemplative. The anger in the songs sounds like it was something in the past. But this night, in Lowell, all that pain and passion was front and center. When she was singing her recent relationship revenge song, "Come On", you felt it was not an excuse for some double entendre, but she was feeling it right at that moment, either directed at the guy who originally let her down, or the fool who decided to request Pink Floyd. When she sang the concert staple "Joy" ("You took my joy and I want it back"), again the song came to life as she was not performing, but venting. She requested the lyrics for The Doors' "Riders On The Storm" from a roadie, which were brought out and clipped to her music stand, and it was sandwiched into the middle of "Joy" (Which was pretty funny after a classic rock request infuriated her in the first place. ) There were a couple a brief smiles, but you could tell she was pissed.
After an hour and a half set, she left with the band. It wasn't even clear she'd be back. But after a few minutes - which seemed like an eternity -- Lucinda returned to the stage . She started with another new song--an angry, one-chord, anti-Bush, pro-Obama song called "Bone Of Contention", followed by another great, passionate interpretation of one of her songs, this time "Unsuffer Me", from "West", which obliterated all previous versions.
Then the old Lucinda was back. She sweetly apologized for her "Meltdown", saying these things happen, and then picked ANOTHER classic rocker, which pretty much summed up her feeling of being under pressure earlier in the evening : AC/DC's "It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock n' Roll)". Once again, Lucinda breathed life into this song - and the lyrics about highways and hotels, getting old, and how it's hard doing one night stands - that it ain't as easy as it looks.
Now THIS should have been a live album . . .