When you have one of the most respected discographies in modern Country, it’s got to be hard to decide what does and doesn’t make the cut when constructing a setlist. Lucinda Williams circumnavigates such a quandary by way of a jumbo-sized setlist that sees her tackle material both new and old in an eclectic selection lasting a comfortable two hours. While her set at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion certainly represents bang-for-buck, any show running that long does always risk presenting a little too much of a good thing – thankfully, both Williams and the fantastic musicians that back her are such consummate performers that this never becomes an issue.
With a discography of original material going back some thirty years, Williams certainly has no shortage of work to draw on for tonight’s set, but nevertheless she does an excellent job of creating a balanced, well paced show that features both a generous helping of long-term favourites and a good amount of material from her more recent efforts. It’s certainly not hard to gauge which songs are most anticipated in tonight’s set – Williams introduces most of the evening’s songs before she starts them and applause is unsurprisingly loud for evergreens such as ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ and ‘Sweet Old World’.
As fantastic as those songs are, however, Williams’ more recent material shines just as brightly. Although, for the majority of the set, she’s joined by a relentlessly tight power trio of drums, bass and lead guitar – known as Buick 6 when recording their own music – she does at one point present her hugely personal lyricism in fittingly stripped-back style. ‘Ghosts Of Highway 20’, from last year’s album of the same name, is utterly engrossing – Williams’ introduction to the song not only contextualising it but adding even more heft to the song’s already searingly honest and emotionally raw words. Another standout from her recent material is ‘Foolishness’, a cut from 2014’s ‘Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone’. It’s a powerful declaration of intent and a real demonstration of Williams’ visceral ability both as a songwriter and vocalist to convey unfettered emotion; it’s certainly a raw performance but that’s a huge part of what makes it work so well.
If there’s something that certainly isn’t raw, it’s the musicianship tonight. Lead guitarist Stuart Mathis wowed the audience throughout the show with extremely tight, versatile playing that melded well with the frequently shifting moods of the songs he accompanied. At times soloing with gusto and aplomb, whilst at others complementing Williams’ voice with subtle melodic touches, his playing is hugely impressive and is certainly made the most of – with practically all of tonight’s songs featuring a decently lengthy guitar solo, sometimes even two.
The rhythm section of drummer Butch Norton and bassist David Sutton likewise impress with well measured performances that, while frequently understated, do descend into gleefully boisterous rock ‘n’ roll when needed. Although tonight’s show clocks in at a substantial two hours, fatigue never sets in – either for those on or off stage. Throughout the show, both Williams and her band give off an aura of real enjoyment. Tonight’s performance is one of enthusiasm first-and-foremost and boasts impressive pacing that undulates in both energy and tempo in time with the moods of the audience, ensuring that proceedings remain vital throughout. By and large, the first portion of the show consists of stomping, mid-tempo country-rockers – 1998’s ‘Drunken Angel’ an early highlight. As the evening progresses, the atmosphere warms and the songs become slower and more introspective, the piercing sadness of ‘Sweet Old World’ an incredibly moving highlight. Where the show’s first half is quiet and melancholic, the second rollicks along at a firm pace – Williams displaying the versatility of her songwriting with a set of rambunctious, lusty rockers and gritty blues anthems that don’t sit in contrast to her quieter ruminations so much as complement them.
When Williams leaves the stage for the first time, after some 100 minutes, it’s to a well-deserved standing ovation. Making the most of the audience’s temporarily elevated stance, a roadie beckons the first few rows to press themselves up against the front of the stage for a fittingly gutsy encore of pedal mashing rock ‘n’ roll and snaking blues. It’s a triumphantly upbeat note to end the show on – a well chosen closer to a hugely immersive show. Tonight’s performance is both an effective primer for the uninitiated and a mark of respect to those who’ve followed Williams’ career for years – played with real verve and passion, these are beautifully written, richly emotive songs and tonight’s show is a triumphant reminder of that.