Lucinda Williams has a reputation as a perfectionist — and as such, her live show sounds much like her records. And that's all well and good, but it was fun to see what happened when she rolled with a mistake Thursday night at The Vogue. You see, her acoustic guitar was unplugged during the opening of "Steal Your Love," a characteristic track from 2001's Essence. And instead of joining in after the intervention of her guitar tech — or scrapping the song and starting over, as she did a couple other times — she just shucked the guitar altogether and focused on the vocals, which acquired a little more drawling authenticity in the process. Her band pushed to fill in the spaces too, giving the tune a sparse but energetic feel absent from her latest, more obviously rocking, fully-orchestrated records. Williams seemed surprised by the results herself, claiming "that's the best that song has ever sounded" before moving on to the next scheduled showpiece.
There weren't many other surprises: Williams has pretty well defined her sound, to such an extent that she might have been on auto-pilot on her latest record, Blessed, particularly with respect to that album's lyrics, which tend to be more cliched and less substantial than those in her earlier work. Of course, one benefit to a live show is that one tends to be less focused on every single line, instead taking in the (if you will) gestalt of the artist. And the gestalt is strong with Williams, who forged her take on Southern music over the years, starting with Robert Johnson covers, then writing her own stuff, eventually arriving at a distillation of Southern music that isn't historically authentic necessarily, but which has the nostalgic, nebulously-evocative feel of a B&W photograph of an old honky tonk, maybe the one which inspired the writing of "2 Cool 2 Be Forgotten," an absolutely brilliant track from her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road that she performed early in the set.
So the new stuff mixed in easily with the old, with none of the clunkers from (say) her unsatisfying elegy for Vic Chesnutt, "Seeing Black," sticking out. It was just about Williams and her band recreating that more-real-than-real Southern feel for an Indiana audience. That band, which turns over every few years, featured one brand-new member, Blake Mills, a guitarist who joined the group mid-tour; her other two collaborators — bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Martin — have been around a bit longer, and both played on Blessed. Give credit to Williams for finding capable musicians to consistently realize her sound. Not sure if they'll "give the Rolling Stones a run for their money," as she said while introducing them at the end of the night, or what that even means given the age of the Stones, but Mills didn't miss a step and Martin, a beefy guy clad in a 10-gallon hat, looked and sounded commanding from behind the set.