Think of what you were doing 25 years ago.
College? High school? Being born? Whatever -- Americana hero Lucinda Williams was already 12 years into her career and releasing Sweet Old World, which she celebrated in its entirety Friday night at First Avenue.
Williams and her band, Buick 6, are re-recording that 1992 album for release this fall, and the full house got a taste of what it will sound like, along with a heaping helping of tracks from the rest of her career.
Listening to Williams’ voice has always been like easing into a warm bath, and the years have weathered it in the best ways possible. Sweet Old World sounded as poignant as ever, but also tougher and grittier -- which is, perhaps, the way it was always supposed to sound.
“Six Blocks Away” opened the show in a stripped-down version that allowed its almost Petty-esque pop to shine through. It's a song they haven't played much over the years, Williams said.
It seems that “He Never Got Enough Love” was originally called “Driving Down a Dead-End Street,” but was retitled out of deference to Bob Dylan, who was playing a similarly named song around that time. Williams has reclaimed the title, and tweaked the song to match. There was a minor hiccup in the performance, but Williams wasn’t too proud to admit she messed it up, and they restarted the song.
There was a nice shout out to Emmylou Harris, who recorded her own version of “Sweet Old World” for 1995’s Wrecking Ball. And the one-two punch of “Little Angel, Little Brother,” a song about depression, followed by “Pineola,” about suicide, was devastating.
“You should really hear the history that went into Sweet Old World,” Williams remarked, “which you probably will now.” Throughout the show, she referred to it as her “stepchild album,” sandwiched as it was between two better-known releases: her self-titled 1988 album, and 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Williams and band went full honky-tonk on “Lines Around Your Eyes” (we all have more of those today than 25 years ago, am I right?), and moved into slinky, sexy mode for the ode to mature love, “Prove My Love.” And Williams’ delivery of “Memphis Pearl” was appropriately spectral for a song about a woman who was a big deal in Memphis but became homeless in Los Angeles.
The staccato approach to “Hot Blood” was funky as shit. Percolating between evocative vignettes of her courtship (stalking?) of an unnamed gentleman, Williams leaned on some of the vocal moments to hilarious effect.
The Sweet Old World set closed with an elegant rendering of Nick Drake’s “Which Will,” after which Williams said, “OK, that album is off the turntable… our little stepchild.”
Immediately, she and the band launched into a freewheeling, rocking set beginning with “Bitter Memory” from last year’s Ghosts of Highway 20, a celebratory eviction: “You make me cry. Why won’t you die? Go away, bitter memory!”
“I Lost It” was a tapestry of sweeping Americana from her second album, and 2011’s “Buttercup” a seething kiss off. And 2016’s “Dust” bubbled like an oasis, built on a backbone of words from Williams' father, the poet Stanley Miller Williams.
The band bounced between “Out of Touch” and a particularly snarly version of “Essence” (both from 2001’s Essence) before ending the main set with a howling, empowering version of 2014’s “Foolishness.” Williams tossed the superficial foolishness of liars into the dustbin of her history before taking aim at fear-mongers and adding lyrics about not needing racism, sexism, or hatred in her life.
As Williams finished with new lines about the need for freedom and liberty, it wasn’t just about her anymore. Most were unprepared for the unvarnished anger, and screamed with each vocal dart, turning “Foolishness” into an impromptu protest song. There was real fire behind it, and it was a perfect finish to the main set.
How do you top that set list? You do it by opening your encore with Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.”. Yep, that’ll do the trick. “One of the sexiest songs ever written,” Williams mused.
“Honeybee” rocked like an animal and brought the house down. Again, though, Williams and her band had one more in the chamber. They opened the proverbial can of whoop-ass on us all by sliding into the battle cry of Car Wheels' “Joy”: “You took my jooooy, and I want it baaack!”
Williams gave joy, and received it in turn, just as it ought to be. By celebrating milestones and anniversaries sometimes you find new angles to look at the world, and maybe the joy that was elusive years ago might be available now.
Sweet Old World
1. Six Blocks Away
2. Something About What Happens When We Talk
3. He Never Got Enough Love
4. Sweet Old World
5. Little Angel, Little Brother
7. Lines Around Your Eyes
8. Prove My Love
9. Sidewalks of the City
10. Memphis Pearl
11. Hot Blood
12. Which Will
13. Bitter Memory
14. I Lost It
18. Out of Touch
21. Rebel Rebel
The Crowd: Throughout the show, there were precious few mobile phones aloft recording the moments. Many times it looked like none. Not sure what that means, but good job, The Crowd!
Overheard in the Crowd: “When she goes off, it is unscripted. That’s soul. She’s bearing her soul.”
Random Notebook Dump: This is beer-drinking music. No --whiskey-drinking music. Either one, I guess. But nothing fancy.