Lucinda Williams, Shepherds Bush Empire, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Even by the tardy timekeeping standards of rock'n'roll, 16 months is a little long to keep your audience waiting. Originally scheduled to play here in July 2005, Lucinda Williams pulled out with throat problems just days after the bombings of 7 July. But never mind. All is forgiven as soon as she sets foot on the stage to a heroine's welcome, all tight jeans and black leather, looking like the sexiest 53-year-old alive.

Williams's music defies easy categorisation: often labelled a country singer (mainly because she's white, Southern and sings about heartbreak), she's got more in common with the Delta blues musicians of a previous era. Strumming an acoustic guitar, she opens with a stately "Ventura", Doug Pettibone's plangent pedal steel lending lachrymose accents to a typically self-lacerating tale of regret.

When Williams, her sensual voice marinated in bourbon, nicotine and a lifetime of romantic disappointments, drawls of her desire to "drown in an ocean of love", there are middle-aged men in the audience who would clearly jump at the chance to supply it.

"Right In Time", unquestionably the best country song ever written about female self-gratification, shudders and sways to a suitably tremulous peak, at which point Williams inquires: "Is this what it's like to be a star? I don't really like that part of it. I just want to sing and play."

Strapping on her electric guitar, she steps up the pace with "Out Of Touch", a song that marries the dirty blues-rock of the Stones to the fuzzy country-rock of Crazy Horse. "I'm in the saddle now," she declares happily. "I'm rockin'. I'm in the driver's seat!"

"Out Of Touch" grinds its hips like The Rolling Stones at their lascivious mid-Seventies peak, "Fruits Of My Labour" swings like vintage jazz, the torch-like "Where Is My Love?" introduces notes of soul and folk, while "Righteously" (which comes out, in her Southern twang, as "Rochersley"), is down-and-dirty swamp-rock blues.

She previews a handful of new songs from her forthcoming album West, of which the obvious pick is the vitriolic "Come On," an innuendo-filled female riposte to Seventies cock-rock (or so she claims). Then a "special guest" is introduced to add blues guitar to Lil' Son Jackson's "Disgusted". "I'm just beside myself about this," she says. "It's one of the highlights of my entire life."

The guitarist, who sticks around to bring the set to an ecstatic climax with Williams's own blues-rock epic "Joy", turns out to be a certain Bruce Springsteen. He looks as if he could not find a happier way to spend a spare evening before his own gigs at Wembley. It was a feeling shared by all of us.

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