Big names are doing extra-special things at the little room that is the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. This spring, jazz piano giant Chick Corea will bring banjo god Bela Fleck to jam with him at the Dakota. Last month, Rock Hall of Famer Prince auditioned a new drummer there one night and debuted his new all-female backup band on another night. On Friday at the sold-out, 300-seat venue, Americana queen Lucinda Williams kicked off an unprecedented five-concert run.
After playing three nights solo there in 2011, she upped the ante by offering an extended engagement, accompanied by guitarist Doug Pettibone.
Even though Williams has been touring in this context for a month, she seemed tentative too long on Friday. Her pacing was awkward, her choice of material not varied and her patter less charming than usual. Overall, her focus seemed off.
The 100-minute performance was neither as wonderfully intimate as her 2011 Dakota shows nor as warm-heartedly personal as her 2006 duo effort with Pettibone at the O'Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University.
With no new album to showcase (in 2011, she explored the well-rounded "Blessed"), Williams seemed a bit adrift. The first section of her concert was heavy on slow, wistful reflections on places and lives in Louisiana, her home state. Fans are used to rock's poet laureate of pain filling her songs with longing, loneliness and loss, but the tempo and dynamics of "Lake Charles," "Jackson" and the like was too similar.
It wasn't until halfway through her set that things turned around. Oddly, that happened on a cover of Hank Cochran's country classic, "Make the World Go Away," which sounded like the song Williams has been trying to rewrite for years. Fueled by the fiddle of Lillie Mae Rische from the opening act, Williams demonstrated that she pro-jects drunken despair better than any other woman in and around country music.
Thereafter, the Grammy-winning Americana standard bearer showed that she can combine the nonchalant cool of Keith Richards with the boozy poetry of Tom Waits. "Jailhouse Tears" was a duet with Pettibone that had real Johnny-and-June bite. "Pineola," about an Arkansas poet's suicide, was dripping in swampy sadness. "Something Wicked This Way Comes," a new number written for the TV series "Nashville," was a righteous mix of sassy vocals and a nasty blues-gospel groove laid down by Pettibone's guitar.
Throughout the evening, he provided the requisite seasoning to pepper Williams' almost monochromatic, drawling tunes. Pettibone unleashed stinging blues on "Concrete and Barbed Wire," Tex-Mex loneliness on "The Night's Too Long" and mournful longing on "Jackson." His bent blues helped elevate the punkish "Joy" into one of the night's highlights.
That and the less-than-lively "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings" were the only Lucinda essentials in the set. She relied too much on covers of Hank Williams, Tom Petty, Skip James and Memphis Minnie to add energy and spice to the set. Maybe, with a good night's sleep in her husband's hometown, Williams will find her focus and comfort zone to make her other four Dakota shows extra-special.
Set list: startribune.com/artcetera Twitter: @jonbream • 612-673-1719