It’s unlikely that Lucinda Williams is a Last of the Summer Wine aficionado.
Yet an arduous walk up one of the steep and seemingly endless Holmfirth hills that provided the setting for the sitcom might just provide the most fitting metaphor for the protracted gestation of the 66-year old Louisiana-born songwriter’s 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Judging by the rapturous response and frequent declarations of love from the capacity crowd at the Picturedome tonight, the trouble (the album took three years, two cities, a number of studios and an equally extensive cast of producers to materialise, at which point another uphill battle began to get it released) was well worth it.
Part of an ongoing series of dates to mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark record that cemented Williams’ efforts to establish Americana as we now know it, the first two thirds of tonight’s triumphant performance revisits the album, complete with the original sequence.
These kinds of trips down memory lane can prove suffocatingly predictable, respectful of the original material to the point where we might as well be listening to the original record in more comfortable surroundings on the living room stereo. That is decidedly not the case tonight.
Although there aren’t any dramatic reinterpretations, Williams tears into the material with an enthusiasm that suggests it was only written yesterday. The superb backing trio Buick 6 contribute hugely to the freshness. In their hands, the country and folk influences of the original Car Wheels... album yield to a sturdy pulse that isn’t averse to injecting even the desperately sad likes of Lake Charles with a dose of swampy funk.
Yet even as the versatile guitarist Stuart Mathis rips through snippets of Voodoo Chile and classic blues riffs during an explosively charged Joy, Williams and the band never lose track of the roots-y influences of her music.
But tonight’s show is really about the songs. Inspired by Williams’ eventful experiences of living in Austin, Texas when the city was a magnet for a certain brand of troubled and inevitably boozy songwriter, sepia-tinged family history and relationships with less than ideal partners, and rooted firmly in the Southern soil Williams sprung from, the sorrowful yet steely material has rarely been bettered in the Americana realm – or anywhere else.
A beguiling mix of Bourbon-drenched grit and clear Country yearning, Williams’ voice has post some of its dexterity over the years but the general avoidance of the upper register makes the unexpected outbreaks of full-on roaring and Appalachia-bound country lilt all the more potent.
Drawn from the eras of Williams’ life that inspired Car Wheels..., the images projected behind the band inspire compelling anecdotes of – amongst other things – unwise lifestyle choices in the company of blokes called Rex who spelled their name ‘Wrecks’, delivered in Williams’ broad Southern drawl.
Williams must have told the same stories every night of the tour yet she manages to make it sound like she’s recounting vivid memories that only just popped into her head.
Same degree of freshness and discovery applies to the Car Wheels... material. Next to this abundance of evocative, emotionally astute songwriting, the uptempo selection of fan favourites from all stages of Williams’ musical journey that concludes the two hours plus set can’t help but seem a bit superficial.
But that’s more a reflection on the masterful nature of the Car Wheels... material and the peerless manner it is delivered tonight than any shortcomings with the other songs and how they are performed.