Lucinda Williams Alive And Rockin' In N.Y.C.

Though she looked disheveled, her music, new and old, sounded as good as it ever did.

NEW YORK -- Tales of Lucinda Williams' demise have been greatly exaggerated.

In front of close to 300 eager fans piled cheek by jowl into the Mercury Lounge's square, brick-walled auditorium, Williams proved Tuesday night that recent criticisms suggesting she's lost a handle on her career and is headed for obscurity are untrue.

The overwhelmingly supportive audience seemed to understand that a lot was

at stake. Not only was Williams previewing songs from her highly anticipated new album, now five years in the making, but she is also the subject of a profile in this week's New York Times Magazine, a piece that, in taking a rather thin slice of her recent life, gives the overall impression that Williams is a neurotic, insecure, control freak-of-an-artist, constantly in search of the perfect sound no matter how many years, producers, or musicians it takes.

Her performance effectively erased any lingering doubts that she could let

go, as Williams strung together new material and old with an understated

grace and strength. Her voice throughout the almost two-hour show supported songs set in the wide world between East Texas and

Louisiana.

Looking slightly tousled in a dark velvet tank and black jeans, fronting a drumless quartet made up of acoustic bass and two (mostly electric) guitars, in addition to her own acoustic guitar, Williams created a sound that was equal parts blues, rock, country and folk.

The set was more of a long simmer than a roiling boil, the mood of the

songs drifting between the elegiac ("Drunken Angel") and wistful

("Passionate Kisses"), and the sensual ("Hot Blood"). Running throughout

the material was a consistent attempt by Williams to fix the characters in

her songs to tangible places, whether generic, as in "The Side of the Road"

and "Change the Lock," or specific, when she sings of someone finding a

home away from home in "Lake Charles." If there was at times too much

stringing and not enough singing -- a few solos by her primary lead guitarist tended toward the unnecessarily verbose -- there was always her voice to come back to, and the locations in her well-crafted songs it described.

As for the new album, Williams proclaimed from the stage without fanfare

that it is completed, and that it is no longer her fault the thing is not

out yet.

In one of the finest and fiercest of the new songs, "Joy," she declares, "You stole my joy, and I want it back," over a steadfast, repetitive blue groove; last night it sounded like a warning and an allegory. Another new song, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," the likely title track for the forthcoming disk, travels from porch front to highway, presenting snapshots of a young life on the road as viewed from the back seat.

Chip Taylor ("Wild Thing," "Angel of the Morning"), like Williams, an artist

perhaps known to more people as songwriter than performer, opened for

Williams and joined her for an encore rendition of "Wild Thing." Unfortunately, Taylor's contributions to the show only highlighted the difficulty of writing songs that sound plainspoken, sweet and true, as Williams has done, and not simply plain and saccharine, as with Taylor's recent efforts. It was unclear, too, exactly why Taylor took center stage for the encore (even if he is "back on the charts"), squeezing Williams over to a side mike and making her look uncomfortable for the first and only time in her whole set.

As perhaps befits an evening that featured two performers reclaiming songs

that had been made famous by others, Williams, with only her band on stage,

closed with a borrowing of her own, choosing to cover a Memphis Minnie

song.

Like Williams, the heroine of the song seeks solace on the road, and has hope of finding it there. [Fri., Sept. 19, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]