Lucinda Williams / Walter Salas-Humara with Lisa Butnick – Luna Park (Los Angeles, CA)
A throng of friends stood mid-floor in the barn-like structure that plays home to the Student Union at the University of Texas during SXSW last March, and watched Lucinda Williams tear up the place. Sure, the band had only rehearsed for a week, and she hadn’t really played live for a year, but midway through the set, and midway through “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” one of us leaned over and whispered, “Well, there’s her next hit single.” If one needed affirmation that Williams was a first-rate performer and songwriter, there it was.
Ten months after, she’s still working on the record; well, she’s been working on it for years, really, Sweet Old World came out in ’92. Her three nights at Luna Park, an expensive Beverly Hills restaurant/cabaret, were billed as an opportunity for the songwriter to try out new material in front of an audience. American Recordings, Williams’ new and patient label, asked even that the shows not be formally reviewed. Fair enough, but at most three of the songs Williams offered during her hour-long set had not been introduced ten months earlier (and, as a friend noted, she’d played a half-dozen of those songs at SXSW the year before). And one of the three new tunes was the work of an LA songwriter.
That Lucinda Williams goes slowly about the business of writing and recording is hardly news. That the batch of new songs she carries with her — written in a spiral notebook and left on a barstool onstage for easy reference — are frequently spectacular is hardly a surprise. But that Williams should seem wan and tentative onstage, seemed uncertain even with material that was at least a year old, that was disturbing.
She arrived a pale presence with feathered hair, flowing pants and a black T-shirt that read: “Girl.” Williams referred often to her songbook, spoke infrequently to the crowd, and seemed almost unbearably fragile in performance. She sparked only for “Changed the Locks,” the raver with which she still closes sets, and even so it seemed for relief that the night was nearly over, not from any kind of cathartic joy at the performance. Even the boogie “You Took My Joy” with which the night shortly ended seemed unusually flat.
Mind you, Lucinda Williams first came to prominence as a fine slide-blues guitarist, a performer whose fire and voice marked her as a possible heir to Bonnie Raitt’s throne. After a couple Folkways (Peter: please check) releases, she was swooped up by the late Rough Trade organization, “Passionate Kisses” became a hit (albeit for Mary Chapin Carpenter), and she seemed at last on the road. Any doubt as to her internal strength seemed resolved by a stint opening for the Cowboy Junkies, when by sheer force of will (and pre-“Passionate Kisses”) she seemed able to captivate and hold an audience who had never heard of her.
Onstage in Los Angeles, then, playing to a crowd of friends (including Steve Earle, who evidently sang with her the next night) and label staff, why did Williams seem so tentative? Long ago she relinquished lead guitar duties to Gurf Morlix, and seems to play along to her songs largely as a nervous reflex these days. But never has she seemed to uninvolved with her material, so tentative at the microphone, and so nervous that she stumbled over the name of her supporting act.
For his part, Walter Salas-Humara had an opening artist’s luck. He played to a cluster of empty chairs (the club reserves tables close to the stage, then sells tickets to the hoi polloi who may then stand behind the elect), and suffered through a baffling array of overhead sounds. Various heads poked in and conferred quietly about the noise; afterwards, Salas-Humara chuckled that it was the only time he’d played along to Rotor-Rooter. Even so, he offered a patient, loving set, caressing his songs in private conference (the public present being mostly friends anyway), and accompanied after the first song by keyboardist/vocalist Lisa Butnick.
Salas-Humara sings his songs of love, heartache and life (what else is there?) with an almost zen peace. He has a fine, rich and expressive voice, writes well, picks cleanly, and offers a gentle warmth from stage. Pity the label honchos missed his set.
Williams played two more nights, and was apparently more comfortable on stage (if not blessed with a different set list). Confusion as to starting times rendered her Tuesday night outing a mystery.