Love, death, despair and salvation were recurring themes during Lucinda Williams’ performance Friday night at Liberty Hall in Lawrence.
During a set that lasted an hour and 45 minutes, Williams and her stout three-piece band visited much of her catalog, which goes back 35 years and comprises 11 studio albums.
She opened with “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” from “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone,” a double album released in September and the first on her own label, Highway 20 Records. The song, which gets its title from a Ray Bradbury novel, is a swampy electric gothic blues number, filled with foreboding, and it immediately showcased the ample skills of Stuart Mathis, the latest in a long line of slick lead guitarists who have accompanied Williams.
From there, she jumped back to her breakthrough album, playing the title track from “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” then, back-to-back, two songs written as memorials: “Pineola,” about the suicide of poet Frank Stanford; and “Drunken Angel,” a tribute to songwriter Blaze Foley.
For much of the first half of the show, there was something perfunctory about her performance. As she has for years, Williams, 61, read her lyrics from a large binder perched in front of her, which, at times, tended to disrupt her connection to her audience. During newer or lesser-known songs, the level of conversation in the back of the room threatened to overtake the music coming from the stage. “Compassion” was one of those, a song from the new album based on a poem by her father, poet Miller Williams.
During the second half of the show, the mood improved and Williams seemed more animated or connected to her songs. “Joy” was particularly fierce and robust; “Honey Bee” was lively, too, almost whimsical. And she added some extra grime and grit to the libidinous “Essence.”
Throughout the set she gave her band members plenty of spotlight. A couple of times, she stood nearly off stage and watched them jam. The longest and fiercest of their instrumental forays came at the end of “Are You Down,” which ended in a blaze of guitar.
She played a couple of songs solo on acoustic guitar. One of those was “Everything Has Changed.” Another was a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel,” which was also another memorial: She dedicated it to Rick Rosas, longtime bassist for Neil Young, who died unexpectedly on Thursday.
She followed that with two of her own, including “Get Right With God,” a song about salvation and making sacrifices for the afterlife. She closed with a cover of Young’s clarion call, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and on that one, Williams got her joy back. She smiled and pumped her fists along with the crowd as it roared back the chorus, immersed in the expression of raw emotion and the celebration of life.
Something Wicked This Way Comes; Car Wheels on a Gravel Road; Pineola; Drunken Angel; I Lost It; Compassion; Everything Has Changed; Fruits of My Labor; Temporary Nature; Are You Down ; Protection; Foolishness; Essence; Joy; Honey Bee; Angel; Righteously; Get Right With God; Rockin’ in the Free World.