Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, maybe even Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. All can be filed away in the breakup and divorce section of any good record collection. Lucinda Williams’ 1998 Americana classic Car Wheels on a Gravel Road sits comfortably on that same shelf. Heartbreak-tick, lost love-tick, emptiness, loneliness, anger-tick, tick, tick.
The difference is that her album is not detailing the breakdown and harrowing aftermath of a single relationship. This is a deeply personal trawl through a whole string of broken hearts. The life on the road of a then-middle aged woman looking back with excruciating detail on every tour bus, road stop and seedy bar in which she has sought love and found it waiting.
She’s in town as one of the big names of Bristol’s Americana festival, River Town. She plays the album in the order of the original release. Behind her are projected photos of old lovers, places, scribbled verses and drunken friends. This is the classic album format as ruthlessly exposing public psychotherapy. Her lengthy between-song conversations happy to expose every letdown, every humiliation. We are getting deeply personal here.
Her lyrics are populated with fractured childhoods, bar brawls, men just out of prison, men just keeping it together in bands. There is nothing static and everyone is moving on, itinerant, constantly on the road. Songs are rich in place names, the detail of her lover’s car and the music they make love to. This is sensual, overtly erotic stuff.
Her father was a published poet and her writing is drenched in the literature of her homeland. The Southern Gothic of Faulkner and O’Connor, Jack Kerouac’s nomadic stream of consciousness, the psychic adventures of the beat poets. Her music veers from Memphis soul, classic Nashville twang, a bit of Zydeco here, a heap of rock n’ roll over there, the constant presence of the low growl of rural blues, a taste of bluegrass. All mixed together in some rich southern stew.
Her voice is a slow, sultry drawl. Drowsy and world-weary. On Right in Time she lustfully remembers a lover now gone. On the title track, childhood half memories collide with her adult self. Concrete and Barbed Wire is allowed to have updated resonance as a despairing yell against the divides of the new populism on both sides of the Atlantic. On Joy she wildly repeats the title in an expression of lost passion and escape.
The problem of opening your show with your best album, your best writing, is that you have to follow it. She’s sung it beautifully and her band have sat in behind her with a grooving sway, tight as tight can be. She finds the answer to her dilemma in glorious, raucous rock n roll. The band are let off their leash. The closing half dozen numbers, one politically angry newie and a smattering from her post-Car Wheels catalogue is played loud with a lovely shambolically louche groove. Think prime Patti Smith fronting Crazy Horse and you’re nearly there.
She encores with a cover of Should I Stay or Should I Go and ends with Righteously; a mix of steaming sexuality with the hint of spiritual redemption. It’s a heady mix. It’s been quite a night. Our ears are ringing as we head out into the Bristol night, our minds lost in tales of the complexity of the heart and our feet still shuffling to that crazy beat music.
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