photos by Kevin Gillingham
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship when a band announces that they’ll be playing an album in its entirety for a full tour. At least half of the set list is automatically predictable, and if the album has some duds—well, you’re in for the whole ride (or at least have the opportunity to plan your beer run or bathroom break). Fortunately, when Lucinda Williams announced a tour in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, I jumped at the chance to attend; the album is that good. Enough has been written on it already, but I personally believe it mixes the best of country, folk, blues, and rock and roll, and Williams’ vocal delivery and phrasing are unmatched.
Williams and her backing band, Buick 6—consisting of Stuart Mathis (guitar), David Sutton (bass), and Butch Norton (drums)—took the famous Beacon stage around 8:30. To make the night even more special, Roy Bittan (producer of Car Wheels and keyboardist/pianist of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band) joined them on keys and accordion for almost all of the set, and Steve Earle (also producer of Car Wheels) lent his vocals, harmonica, and guitar for four songs. As Lucinda pointed out in the middle of the set, this marked the first time she has performed with both Bittan and Earle on stage.
As they went onstage, a video montage was played in the background, with video and photos from Williams’ past. Throughout the night, they continued to show various photos, often of handwritten lyrics to the song being played. Williams and company did a masterful job of delivering Car Wheels in a live setting. Some songs, such as the title track, were not exact renditions of what is on the record, but by no means is that bad thing. If anything, it’s a testament to Williams and Buick 6’s ability to tailor the songs to their strengths and Williams’ current vocal range. Norton was a powerhouse on the drums, but was also able to scale it back when necessary, always serving the song. Sutton was no slouch on the bass either, switching from electric to stand up bass (sometimes with a bow), and even quoting the “Walk On the Wild Side” (Lou Reed) bass line during “Righteously.” The continual highlight of Buick 6, however, was Mathis’ fretwork on guitar. He could go from smooth, soothing passages to full on Neil Young/Crazy Horse-esque overdriven fuzz, sometimes within the same song, as he did in “Foolishness.” Williams’ voice only got stronger as the night went on, especially on the aforementioned “Foolishness” and “Faith & Grace,” a traditional blues song which was mainly just her on vocals.
The addition of Bittan on keys and accordion added some depth and excitement to the songs, particularly on “I Still Long For Your Kiss” and “Get Right With God.” Earle first came onstage for “Drunken Angel” and “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” “Jackson,” and “Joy,” which was easily the highlight of the night. They stretched “Joy”out to allow Earle and Mathis some freedom on guitar, with them even quoting Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” intro in the middle of the song. The song veered from a propulsive blues jam to a more laid back groove, and at one point the band settled down, with only Williams’ vocals carrying the song.
The entire 2 ½ hour set felt like a deluxe version of VH1’s old Storytellers series, as Williams readily gave insight on some songs and the inspiration behind them. The crowd was more than happy to hear her stories, and it gave us an even deeper appreciation for her catalog. The Car Wheels tour continues on in November, and she has some select dates in December, too. Check those out here.