It didn't take long to figure out how this show would go.
Six songs into her set on July 22, Lucinda Williams was singing the praises of the Arvada Center's outdoor amphitheater and its acoustics. A woman in the audience shouted, "You sound good all the time."
Williams responded, "It doesn't always sound as good up here as it does out there. It sounds real good tonight. I'm happy. If Mama's happy, everybody's happy."
There she is, Miss Americana. One of alt-country's pioneering women was clearly enjoying herself, and most of the mama drama would be confined to the powerful songs she continued to perform with her stellar three-man band for another 90 minutes.
Despite two-for-one offers in the general admission lawn area that can hold up to 900, the venue just north of Denver (with another 600 covered and comfy reserved spots) didn't come close to selling out. That might have had something to do with this show wrapping up a three-day weekend of dates in the area for Williams, including Boulder's quaint Chautauqua Auditorium the previous night.
The cheerful crowd was enthusiastic and appreciative, though, warming up to Williams as she cranked up the energy level alongside some industrial-strength players that included her longtime guitarist Doug Pettibone (right) and more recent additions, Butch Norton (drums) and David Sutton (bass).
After opening with "World Without Tears," Williams went right to a pair off her career-defining album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, "Metal Firecracker" and "Drunken Angel."
The latter gave her a chance to reference Blaze Foley, a "roustabout" songwriter she knew while living in Houston and Austin, Texas who died too soon.
"He used to fall asleep on pool tables or sleep on pool tables overnight," Williams said of Foley, whose "If I Could Only Fly" was recorded by Merle Haggard. "Actually, last night we were at a bar after the show and there was a guy passed out on a pool table. Bless his heart. Nobody could wake him up for anything. ...
"Blaze was a real big follower of Townes Van Zandt. Townes was kind of his hero. He tried to keep up with Townes, which of course no one could do. Now they're both gone. This song could be about Townes as well."
Of course, a literary flair allows Williams to write from experience and she knows how dealing with the dark side can lead to tragic consequences. As one of this country's finest writers of roots music, she expresses all that with a gravelly voice that still receives mixed reviews. And, just as Robert Plant did on his recent Band of Joy tour, she keeps the lyrics to her songs right in front of her, something all of us who helped put the middle in middle age can understand. But in these days of auto-tuning, overdubbing and other tricks and gimmicks, don't question her relevancy as an authentic deliverer of the goods whose main competitors in this rich pageantry of well-respected women are Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch.
With 10 studio albums under her belt, including 2011's sublime Blessed, Williams continues to see her devoted fan base hold steady, while admiration keeps coming from entertainers all over the world, some more obvious than others.
On the just-released Storybook, a collection of songs written by 15 of her favorite artists who "influenced me from when I was a small child up until now," Australia's Kasey Chambers opens with Williams' "Happy Woman Blues."
In the album liner notes, Chambers writes, "It was such a moment for me, first seeing Lucinda play when I was 16. ... She struck me as so real, so honest. ... Through Lucinda's song I discovered that it was OK to sing about really personal things, stuff that touched you deeply."
Then there's this recent tribute from another awesome Aussie, gifted actress Rose Byrne (Damages, Bridesmaids). In a July issue of Entertainment Weekly, she unveiled an iPod playlist that includes Williams' album Essence alongside songs by Cat Power and Feist. "I always go back to her," Byrne said of Williams. "She's one of the the best singer-songwriters in America -- just brilliant. And such a great voice."
In a 21-song, two-hour set in Arvada that repeated only a few performed from her vast songbook the previous night, Williams drew the most from Essence. The gospel glory of "Get Right With God," with admirable assists from bright-and-shining show openers Amy Cook and David Garza, was the encore finale and the last of six off that critically acclaimed 2001 album.
Right before the encores, Garza came to the rescue by grabbing Williams' electric guitar to play rave-ups with Pettibone on "Joy" and "Honey Bee," both ending with furious flurries.
Moving somewhat gingerly in the middle of the action as Norton (left) and Sutton (right) supplied the steady pace, Williams still shook what God gave her, but was pleased just to witness the awesome display of electric power. "My back started bothering me, so I don't have to hold that heavy-ass guitar," she said between numbers. "I'm free, I get to stand here and be the diva."
Despite her aching back, Williams was in fine form, sharing pleasantries with the audience while treating them to new songs such as "Stowaway in Your Heart" and "Something Wicked This Way Comes." About the latter, she said, "I just taught this one to the band today at soundcheck. I borrowed the title from a Ray Bradbury novel. I hope that's OK."
In an accent that combines Louisiana drawl with Texas twang, Williams even apologized to a fan's request for "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" during the encore. "Oh, I'm sorry," she politely said before rolling into Skip James' "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues."
"He wrote this during the Depression era," Williams added. "And, of course, it's as relevant today as it's ever been."
Before a particularly wrathful rendition of "Unsuffer Me" that ended with Pettibone's searing guitar riffs, Williams touched on the movie massacre in nearby Aurora that happened in the early morning hours of July 20.
"I've been watching the beautiful prayer vigil unfolding in Aurora. I watched that a couple hours before the show. Like they said, everybody's been affected directly and indirectly like a ripple when you throw a stone in the water. I think there's a reason that we were here. We played shows these last three nights all in Colorado. ... (applause)
"I don't know. But something changed within me, I think, over these last few nights," she said, choking up as her eyes turned misty. "I just feel more connected with people. (scattered applause) ... What President Obama said when he came to Aurora and he spoke a little bit. I was hoping he'd say something like that. He didn't get into it too much. But, you know, he said, 'We're gonna make sure this doesn't happen again.' We need to make sure people can't get ahold of those kind of weapons. (wild cheers and applause) Somebody needs to be here going, 'Hey, wait a second. What were you gonna do with this stuff?' "
The outspoken Williams got a little more personal to quickly brighten the mood. "Now we're going to get into some songs of a slightly more carnal nature," she said, bringing laughter and whistling from the crowd. "I told my husband (and manager) Tom (Overby), he always does the set list and I'll look at it and approve it; you know, it's such a sensitive time, I don't know if we should sing songs about ... you know ... that kind of. ..."
Twenty minutes later, she tore into the "Essence" of carnal knowledge.
Baby, sweet baby, whisper my name /
Shoot your love into my vein
While the years might have tamed the wild out of the woman, Williams' weathered, world-weary voice still retains its passion.
No wonder Lucky Lady Lu, who was singing those "Happy Woman Blues" as far back in 1980, keeps on smiling.
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more of Lucinda Williams and show opener Amy Cook in Arvada.