Loosely tagged an Americana artist, Lucinda Williams has seen quite a few of her songs of unrequited love and loss and yearning covered by a wide range of singers. Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, the great lady of soul Bettye Lavette and, most famously, Mary Chapin Carpenter. The Grammy-winning "Passionate Kisses" is the only notable omission from a slow-burning, deeply satisfying two-hour set at the beautifully-appointed 2,350-capacity venue that nestles next to the 02.
Looking like she's standing between Keith Richards and Marianne Faithfull in a police line-up, but in much better voice than both have been in recent years, she sways gently and reaches out to the audience with her left hand as her crack band play the smouldering "Rescue" from current album West, and then "Ventura" from 2003's World Without Tears. When she sings "I'll put Neil Young on and turn up the sound," over Doug Pettibone's gliding pedal steel guitar, the otherwise hushed audience claps and hollers.
Williams is nowhere near as prolific as Young, but does cover as many, if not more styles, and her musicians do provide the occasional Crazy Horse feedback moment. After "Are You Alright?", a hypnotic song inspired by her concern over the wanderings of her younger brother, she goes back to "Right in Time" from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, the first of two Grammy-winning albums and the one that introduced her to a larger audience in the late Nineties.
But it's when she locks into the groove of "Righteously", a track that People magazine described as hip-billy – "a cross between hip-hop and hillbilly, I created a new genre of music," she quips, and to further prove the point, her lyrics name-check jazz great John Coltrane – that you truly realise how groundbreaking, pivotal and versatile she remains. Williams reminds her adoring fans that it wasn't always that way, that in 1988 Britain's very own Rough Trade was the first and only label to offer her a deal when her music "fell into the proverbial cracks between country and rock, when it wasn't fashionable."
Timeless and unpredictable rather than fashionable, Williams could teach a few things to the current generation of wanna-be rock and pop icons and martyrs. Just as I'm thinking that Amy Winehouse could easily cover some of her more soulful material, she straps an electric guitar on and prefaces "Real Live Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings" with a tirade about death being the easy way out.
Williams is a survivor, and that song has the swagger of the Stones' "Street Fighting Man". Even more than la Faithfull, she exudes an aura of sleepy sensuality and delicious wickedness.
She may be constantly changing the set list, previewing the garage stomp of "Honey Bee" and drifting into Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" and The Doors' "Riders on the Storm" at the end of "Joy", but there is an internal logic to the way the emphasis changes constantly.
Hell, drummer "Butch" Norton – often seen with the Eels, as is multi-instrumentalist Jeff "Chet" Lyster – even switches cymbals constantly and uses an array of percussion to match the mood. He proves more than a match for the legendary Jim Keltner, the session drummer producer and sound-scaper that Hal Willner used on West.
Williams and her four-piece band – which also includes David Sutton on bass – have been on tour for the last four months, and have performed five of her eight albums in their entirety during concert runs in Los Angeles and New York, so she can pretty much call out any tune she wants. By the encore, after a most unlikely but very welcome cover of Thievery Corporation's "Marching the Hate Machines (Into the Sun)", they even find their way back to the brooding surrender of "Unsuffer Me" and the title track from West. "Come out West and see," she sings invitingly. The mesmerising Williams is irresistible and impossible to pigeonhole.
Lucinda Williams is playing the Plug, Sheffield (0114-241 3040) tonightReuse content