Pop: A southern star in the making

LUCINDA WILLIAMS SHEPHERD'S BUSH EMPIRE LONDON
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The Independent Culture
LOUISIANA-BORN Lucinda Williams isn't exactly a household name and some of her songs are still better known than she is. But in the next few weeks, she'll be lauded by Rolling Stone (album of the year), and Mojo (one of their six artists of 1998). And she alsosold out this sizeable venue. So things just might be changing.

There are several reasons why she hasn't blossomed into a star up to now. There's been bad luck with record deals. Talk of her being difficult and edgy. A less-than-prolific output of five albums in 19 years. Yet, most of all, she doesn't fit neatly into any set category.

"Am I rock or am I country?" she laughed, firing the debate by referring to the white cowboy hat she was wearing on Sunday night.

Someone shouted loudly, "You're blues!" Another yelled, "You're just you, Lucinda," with a refrain of "...and we love you" coming from somewhere else in the hall.

Whatever she is, Williams is Southern to the core. After opening with "Pineola" and following with some of the most anthemic slow-burning numbers from her current album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, she gave a hint of some of the company she has kept with "Drunken Angel", which she described as being about a friend and fellow songwriter who got shot in a Texan bar-room brawl. The spoken introduction was moving but the song carried a tough, yet tender message - what a waste.

Through the swampy "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" and the yearning "Still I Long For Your Kiss", Williams presented a set that showed she'd been in the late-night backwater bars, the pongy motels and the lonely blacktops falling in love with people she maybe shouldn't have. She's had the experiences that the Jewels and the Morissettes of this world are merely embarking on, and it tells in the crafted quality of the songs that she articulates in a unique voice, managing to sound sweetly optimistic and world-weary at the same time: a studied combination of the best vocal elements of blues, country, folk and rock.

The set closed with her band, made up of the best of Nashville's leftfield (including the robotic guitar star Kenny Vaughan and Jim Lauderdale on acoustic guitar and harmonies), firing on all cylinders with two raunched- up Southern rockers in "Changed the Locks", successfully covered by Tom Petty, and "Joy".

"Passionate Kisses", the huge hit she wrote for Mary Chapin Carpenter, got a popular airing during the encore as did "Sweet Old World" and "Crescent City", previously covered by cult country heroine Emmylou Harris. And her homage to the blues, with several enjoyably gritty numbers, including Lil' Son Jackson's "Disgusted", left the crowd in no doubt of her talents.

After the second prolonged encore, the house lights came up, accompanied by a Sheryl Crow tune. The platinum-selling artist just seemed like plain old wallpaper compared to the rich textures of life presented to the audience over the previous two hours. Widespread recognition for Williams must surely come.

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