Much of the sold-out crowd at Lucinda Williams’ show at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Friday was moving toward the exits, understandably figuring that the rousing tandem of the gospel-derived “Faith and Grace” and her own “Get Right With God,” which had capped a three-song encore in roof-raising fashion, was it for the night. But then the singer returned to the stage.
You could see why she didn’t want the evening to end. Just took a look at the band around her: Not only did she have her core cadre (guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton and drum powerhouse Butch Norton). Not only did she have long-time compadre Greg Leisz, the pedal steel and guitar wizard who co-produced her gripping new “The Ghosts of Highway 20” album. Not only, even, did she have jazz-and-so-much-more guitarist Bill Frisell, whose lyrical peels intertwining with Leisz’s dancing strings give the new album such distinctive character.
She also had for the final 30 minutes or so of the show jazz sax giant Charles Lloyd, a new friend via his recent collaborations with Leisz and Frisell, bringing new dimensions and depths to songs and performances that already had considerable helpings of both. Williams’ anger-meditation “Joy,” for example, with Lloyd’s presence both adding to and cutting through the intensity that built through the song, became a surprising and wondrous mix of James Brown, Muddy Waters, Waylon Jennings and John Coltrane.
||| Photo by Jim Brock Photography
So, yeah, no one there seemed to mind when she wanted to do just one more song, especially that song being Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” with Lloyd’s sweet, soulful river and Williams’ transportative drawl taking the at-times-too-familiar song into wonderful new spaces.
The show started, though, with Williams alone on that stage, noting that this was a sort of “homecoming” before playing a solo acoustic version of the new album’s title song. L.A. has been her home for most of the time since the early 1980s, but she could just as well have been talking about the locales that inspired much of the album, places (and their people) in the American south where she was raised, in particular Louisiana. “I know these roads like the back of my hand, and the stations on the FM band,” she sang, the memories both happy and sad, bitter and sweet, dark and, well, less dark — “I went through hell when I was younger.”
Frisell then joined for “Place in My Heart,” a sweet, romantic waltz with a classic emotional catch that could almost have come from the Brill Building. Or Tin Pan Alley. Leisz came on for the next song, Williams’ older, autumnally wistful Louisiana ode “Lake Charles,” then Sutton and Norton for “Born to Be Loved” (the title line being the shining ray through the murk of the fatalistically rough rest of the song). And then Mathis filled it out for 2010’s “Ventura,” in which the singer pulls herself from even deeper and more specific existential crisis with an affirmational drive up the coast.
There were a few rough spots with technical issues and a nagging cough Williams fought through (and overcame), but as things went on and the band — a one-time-only treat of a lineup that had just one lone rehearsal the night before — gelled and fully trapped into both the power and grace of the combined talents. By the middle of the generous set with “Dust,” another highlight from the new album, with lyrics adapted from a work by Williams’ late father, noted poet Miller Williams, everything came together in a bracing whole, Williams’ comfort and confidence and the smiles exchanged between the musicians telling the story. And then Lloyd stepped in and otherworldliness took over.
And then the encores, starting with Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” a long-time Williams favorite (she mentioned the trouble she got in for singing it right after 9/11) that is also an instrumental highlight of the new Lloyd album, “I Long to See You,” with Leisz and Frisell.
In the middle of “Faith and Grace,” the musicians settling into a soul-gospel-jazz groove, Williams said that an interviewer had recently asked her if she had a religion. “I ain’t got no religion,” she said, looking around. “This is my religion here.”