Lucinda Williams to Balance Old Favorites and New Songs
For the Lebanon Opera House stop on her tour next week, Lucinda Williams promises to season the set list with songs that won her Grammys and a huge audience in the 1990s.
“How much you play of your new stuff and your old stuff depends partly on what type of venue it is,” Williams said in a phone interview on the eve of hitting the road in early June. “A lot of the time, the audience likes to hear the old ones.”
So forgive her next Wednesday night for offering, along with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Sweet Old World and Passionate Kisses, some appetizers from the double album she’ll release later this year: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, from the last line of her father Miller Williams’ poem Compassion.
“Audiences have been surprisingly receptive to the new material,” Williams said. “One night we overdid it a little bit, and we heard about it, but overall, it’s been very heartwarming.”
The calibration issue on this tour, along with reading the audience appetite for the new, is deciding what to play from Spirit, which contains 35 songs from a flood of creation and recording in 2013.
“It’s really mind-blowing,” the 61-year-old Williams said. “There was enough for three albums. I was just in this writing mode, and came up with more and more songs. Usually you whittle them down, but so many worked well that we really wanted to get them out there and went with the double album.”
The only one that came hard to this daughter of a poet, this lifelong lyricist in her own right, was the adaptation of Compassion. The poem reads as follows:
Have compassion for everyone you meet,
Even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
Bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
Of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
Down there where the spirit meets the bone.
“It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” she said. “It’s pretty challenging. I wasn’t sure how to go about it. It’s a whole other level, songwriting as opposed to poetry. I finally came up with the melody, and had to bend the words around a little bit.”
Williams has been bending words around melodies for as long as she can remember. As the academic equivalent of “a military brat,” she grew up following her father to teaching posts at several colleges around the South, absorbing the Southern gothic vibe of authors like Flannery O’Connor (whose peacocks Williams’ father tells her she chased during a visit to the writer’s place in Macon, Ga.), Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, and the conversations between her father and his colleagues and friends . Her father also introduced Williams, through records and concerts and street players alike, to music ranging from Hank Williams to Delta blues guitarist Blind Pearly Brown.
“(Brown’s) was a really, really raw kind of blues singing,” Williams recalls. “He was the first to have a major influence on me.”
On the brink of adolescence, Williams fell under the spell of a certain folk singer.
“At 12 1/2 I started taking guitar lessons, and I was really into Joan Baez,” Williams said. “I looked at her long hair and bare feet and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”
So began an odyssey in which she played folk music on Bourbon Street in New Orleans in her late teens, migrated to Austin, Texas in the mid-1970s, then New York in the late ’70s to play in and around Greenwich Village, and recorded a couple of roots-oriented albums for Smithsonian Folkways before moving to Nashville just in time for the alt-country wave, Finally, she landed in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, and after her self-titled album came out in 1988, people like Tom Petty (Change the Locks) and Mary Chapin Carpenter (Passionate Kisses) were covering Williams’ songs.
Next came her Grammy-winning contemporary-folk album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in 1998. Soon she found herself performing at Carnegie Hall with the likes of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Baez, Odetta, and Dar Williams for a Folkways album of Woody Guthrie songs.
“If there was a point where it felt like I’d arrived, that might have been it,” Lucinda Williams said. “Pete had been one of my childhood heroes. It was pretty thrilling, a real emotional experience for me. It had me looking back to singing on the streets of New York.
“Everything all tied together.”
Lucinda Williams and her band will play the Lebanon Opera House on Wednesday night, with the Kenneth Bryan Band as guest. The show begins at 7:30. Tickets are $35-$55. For more information, visit lebanonoperahouse.org or the box office in City Hall, or call 603-448-0400.
∎ The BarnArts Center for the Arts will devote these next two weekends to six performances of the musical Little Shop of Horrors, in which a carnivorous plant evolves into a monster that both threatens and empowers a lowly store worker. In addition to evening shows at 7:30 this Friday, Saturday and Sunday and on June 27, 28 and 29, BarnArts will stage Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 both weekends, under the co-direction of Jarvis Green and Tom Beck. For tickets and more information, visit barnarts.org.
∎ If you missed the run of John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo at the Miracle Mile Plaza’s Entertainment Cinemas last month, Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center will screen this quiet see-saw between comedy and poignancy twice on Friday night: at 6:15 and 8:30, in Loew Auditorium at the Black Family Center for the Visual Arts. In addition to his lead performance as a late-middle-aged, financially-strapped part-time florist who seems to find his calling by servicing the needs of well-to-do women in New York City, Turturro — whom most of us know best from his finely-drawn appearances in the movies of the Coen brothers and Spike Lee — wrote and directed. On top of setting and filming the story in the gloaming of fall, he evokes pointed performances from a cast that includes Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara as two of his characters’ customers, and maybe the best on-screen outing since the 1970s by Woody Allen as, of all things, a failing bookstore-owner-turned-pimp. Just a hint: This picture will particularly resonate if you happen to see it within, oh, 24 to 48 hours of viewing Seth MacFarlane’s rude-but-hysterical A Million Ways to Die in the West.
∎ After catching its breath from staging A Little Night Music, the New London Barn Playhouse on Wednesday will jump straight into a three-week run of the musical Damn Yankees. Based on The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, Douglass Wallop’s novel of the 1950s about baseball fan Joe Hardy selling his soul to the devil to turn him into a superstar hitter and fielder and boost his hapless Washington Senators past a certain New York diamond dynasty, it features Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ Broadway-classic songs You’ve Gotta Have Heart and Shoeless Joe. After opening Wednesday with a matinee at 2 p.m. and a 7:30 evening performance, the troupe will stage 7:30 shows June 26, 27 and 28, and a 5 p.m. outing on Sunday, June 29. For more information, visit nlbarn.org/box-office/current-season/#dy.
∎ Good Day Sunshine: Revels North will celebrate the solstice on Saturday evening with its Summer Revels on the Norwich Green, between 5 and dark. The free event mixes fiddle music, choruses across age groups, dancing, lantern-making, puppet shows and seasonal finger food. The music will commemorate two departed peacemakers, Pete Seeger and Nelson Mandela.