"Wow this is really intimate," Lucinda Williams said as she took the tiny stage Sunday night at the sold-out Dakota Jazz Club for a rare solo acoustic singer-songwriter gig.
It turned out to be a wonderfully intimate performance. Williams was relaxed, friendly, confessional and uncompromising. It was exactly what her devoted fans had pined for under the circumstances.
Rock's poet laureate of pain presented 105 minutes of deeply enriching sad songs -- short stories, really -- on a snowy winter's night. The three-time Grammy winner demonstrated why Time magazine called her America's best songwriter in 2002. She is a songwriter's songwriter, with a poet's sensibility, a journalist's attention to detail and a novelist's storytelling skills.
This being an intimate evening, Williams, 58, was fairly talkative, often explaining the backstory of her songs. She separated the facts from fiction before singing "Pineola," the tale of a poet who committed suicide. She confessed that "Memphis Pearl" was an imagined story about a woman she saw Dumpster diving in Los Angeles, and that the unrecorded "Port Arthur" was about Janis Joplin.
And she blabbed all about the ex-lover who inspired "Metal Firecracker." It might have been TMI for the uninitiated but for her fans this was like sitting in her living room being serenaded by a master of sweet, sad songs.
Williams previewed six songs from her 10th studio album, "Blessed," due out on March 1. "Buttercup" was one of her typical scolding-of-a-bad-boy tunes. "Born to Be Loved" was a meditation on mankind's hard-luck people that could easily be interpreted as a love song. There's no doubt that Williams, who married Minnesotan Tom Overby in 2009 onstage at First Avenue, now has a wider range of emotions in her repertoire. Has a hymn ever sounded as dreamy as "Kiss Like Your Kiss" (which she dedicated to Overby)? Best of all may have been "Ugly Truth," with its sweet, gentle country melody and her voice so controlled but infused with quiet, graceful conviction.
On this, the second of 10 solo shows before she starts a tour with her band on March 4, Williams was in strikingly good voice. Her lazy Louisiana drawl sounded less gravelly, less weathered and, frankly, prettier than usual.
Near the end of her main set, Williams seemed to run out of steam, as she blew the lyrics on the wordy "Blessed" and had to start over. By then, even hard-core fans might have been wishing for a guitar sideman, who could accent and punctuate her songs the way Doug Pettibone had at their 2006 duo show at the O'Shaughnessy in St. Paul.
Those wishes were answered during the encore when Williams brought out her old buddy, Minnesota-bred guitarist Randy Weeks of Austin, Texas. His slide guitar enlivened the jaunty "Can't Let Go," the scathing, twangy "Change the Locks" and the scorching "Joy." They ranked with "Blue," her elegant ballad about loneliness, as the night's highlights.
There is no word if Weeks will be joining Williams for her Dakota concerts on Monday and Tuesday. But she does promise a new set list each night.