“Do you think about death a lot?”
That's a question Lucinda Williams often gets from interviewers, and apparently it annoys her.
“Those are the kind of questions I face," she recently told Vogue. "I said, 'Well, I do now!' I lost my mother in 2004, my dad a year ago, January 1. I just turned 63. So, hello!"
Williams gets all sorts of related questions, like “Do you believe in ghosts?” To which she responds that the “ghosts” in her songs are really just memories, and it’s not all that complicated or mystical to her.
Touring behind her latest, Ghosts of Highway 20, Lucinda brought her A-game to the sold-out Dakota on a cold, windy Tuesday night, the first of four consecutive shows at the Minneapolis jazz club. It appears all shows are sold out, but head down there and try begging. It couldn’t hurt.
Lucinda’s band, Buick 6, opened the evening to a prerecorded female voice speaking in French, “tout le monde fermé de la baise pour le style instrumental de Buick 6.” Translation: “Everyone shut the fuck up for the instrumental stylings of Buick 6” (Google translation used — no guarantees on accuracy).
They played a short set of slippery blues shuffles and an odd Bowie cover (“The Man Who Sold the World”). The guitarist is a badass; the drummer is endlessly inventive and all analog.
After a short wait, they came back out with Ms. Williams with her notebook full of ghost stories, and that voice. The warmth of the Dakota stage adds to her drawl, and it comes across like a security blanket you never knew you needed.
Looking backward, the band slid into “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" off 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and a triumphant-sounding version of the title track from that album. It’s definitely not a happy song, but some ghosts you choose to keep around.
Lucinda was inspired by a documentary on the West Memphis Three to write Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone’s “West Memphis." In light of recent events here and elsewhere in the country, the song has a particularly nasty bite. Some ghosts just simply refuse to go away.
She introduced “Cold Day in Hell” by saying, “Of course I had to write a song with that phrase in it. You used to hear it a lot more."
Venturing into material from her current album, Lucinda sang the lines, “You’re just a little rough around the edges / Tough as nails, made of stone,” clearly about another person. The playful crowd, though, seemed to be unconsciously repurposing the lines from “Can’t Close the Door on Love” to describe their Lucinda Williams, and it cracked her up as the audience cheered and applauded for subsequent lyrics.
“Highway 20 runs through towns I know. Lotta memories," Williams said between songs. "It’s not a superhighway. There are signs like ‘The End is Coming – Repent!’ or ‘Harold’s Reptile Farm’ along the way. I was the girl in the backseat, with the dirt and tears, but now I’m driving."
She then treated the audience to a solo acoustic reading of “Ghosts of Highway 20," and it was potent.
Someone in the crowd yelled out for [Car Wheels on a Gravel Road song] “Lake Charles," to which Lucinda responded, “There are some songs that seem to resonate with people. One is ‘Lake Charles,' another is ‘Drunken Angel.'" When she launched into “Drunken Angel," the “Lake Charles” lady screamed even louder.
Williams played a touching version of Essence’s “Bus to Baton Rouge” before heading back to more recent territory.
“Doors of Heaven” started slowly and deliberately, and built to a full-band rave up. It bears mentioning that her band, Buick 6, is a case study in restraint, knowing when and where to unleash the kraken. They clearly know how to play the shit out of their instruments, but more importantly, they understand when not to do so.
Lucinda and the band turned in a surprisingly funky version of Ghosts of Highway 20’s “Dust," a song built around a poem her father wrote. Finishing off the main set was Little Honey’s “Honey Bee." Lucinda and the band were in full boss mode at this point, so obviously there was no way the Dakota crowd was going to leave after that barnburner.
Opening the encore with a gorgeous JJ Cale song, Williams transitioned into another cover: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come." It was a stunner, and some tears were in the eyes of the crowd. The last song of the night went back to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’s “Joy," a track that Williams said she now considers to be a protest song.
Ghosts, memories, whatever you choose to call these songs, Williams led the crowd through a crash course of emotional management last night, and everyone came out feeling better than before. If you can get a ticket to one of the upcoming shows, do it.
Critic’s bias: Going into the show, I thought I only needed to hear one song in particular — “West Memphis." Little did I know how much I needed the Sam Cooke cover.
The crowd: I’m definitely not getting any younger, but I felt like I was last night! There were lots of vests, and a weird mix of hippie style with gray hair and no attempt to cover it up.
Overheard in the crowd: “This is get-in-your-head music — can’t shake it off," plus “Béarnaise? Béarnaise?” (I love eating good food at a show).
Random notebook dump: Does Lucinda have kids? It would be so cool having her as your mom. The Dakota makes a mean Caesar salad.