I was there to see Neil Young, and my seats were crap. Luckily, a friend who had seats in the orchestra pit came up to say hello, and never left. In fact, he just passed out-and sleeping people have no use for the expensive concert tickets in their pockets.
Young wouldn't be yowling for an hour or so, but the press accolades ("America's best songwriter," wrote Time, "America's greatest living songwriter," wrote SPIN) convinced me to be punctual and see if opening act Lucinda Williams was all she's cracked up to be.
"Lucinda is the real deal," my buddy had mumbled before succumbing to chemical sleep. "Jewel wishes she could write lyrics like Lucinda. I'd leave my wife for her!"
Two minutes later, I pick-pocketed him.
On stage, Lucinda looked small, dwarfed by her acoustic guitar. She wore blue jeans and a pink T-shirt that matched her pink Converse-a real urban cowgirl. She casually kicked her band into an hour-long set. Even on the Greek's large, outdoor stage, the warmth of this "female Dylan"'s songs-sung with her mealy, almost manly drawl-kept the L.A. audience off their cell phones. The venue felt as intimate as she is, a place where heartbreak and love trade shifts.
At the un-rock 'n' roll age of 50, Williams seems to be hitting her artistic stride. Last year's World Without Tears, her seventh album, was a critical success and fan favorite. Recorded live with her band in a rented Los Angeles mansion, Tears is effortlessly cohesive, a quality she's been striving to recapture since her 1988 self-titled debut.
"We recorded the way a live band would record," says Williams, who was joined in the studio by San Diegan Doug Pettibone on guitar, Jim Christie on drums, percussion and keyboards and Taras Prodaniuk on bass. "These songs really are "The Fruits of My Labor,' which is the title of one of the songs on the album. It shows all the different musical influences that have entered into my life, but none of it was conscious. It just happened."
The eldest daughter of poet Miller Williams and pianist Lucy Morgan, Williams was born in Lake Charles, La. in 1953. Throughout her early years, the family moved from college town to college town as her dad struggled to make a name for himself as a poet and college professor. While no doubt rough on the family, the gypsy life had its perks: writers would pass through the Williams household with regularity, including Flannery O'Conner and poets John Ciardi and Kenneth Patchen. The influence of Southern Gothic literature would help shape Williams as a lyricist later in life.
As the teenage years approached and her parents divorced, Williams discovered through Bob Dylan what she wanted to do with her life.
After a brief stint at the University of Arkansas in 1971, Williams left school and headed to New Orleans, where she played her first gig. In an interview with Harp magazine, she recounted the phone call with her father that cemented her future: "I was supposed to come back to school in the fall, and I said, "I don't wanna do that; I wanna stay down here and do this.' And he said , "OK.' That was probably the most important thing he's ever said to me in my entire life. That was the crossroads, right there."
More traveling ensued as Williams studied blues, folk, country and rock, playing coffee houses and bars in Austin, Houston, Berkeley, Nashville and Los Angeles. In 1998, 10 years after her first release, the critical floodgates opened when Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was nominated for a Grammy.
Today, it seems Lucinda Williams has achieved a rare feat-being a fiercely independent musician who is also embraced by the industry. In addition to her current tour, she'll join performers like Norah Jones and Steve Earle for "Return to Sin City," a two-night tribute concert to the late Gram Parsons set for July 9 and 10 in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. She'll also guest on Willie Nelson's upcoming album, scheduled for a fall release.
After she finished her set that night at the Greek Theatre, I walked back to my lowly seats. My friend perked up and asked how long he'd been out.
"Long enough to miss Lucinda," I replied.
"Shit, I just wasted an orchestra seat to sleep."
Like a cigarette after sex with an intriguing stranger, I took a sip of my beer. "Don't worry, man," I said, reaching into my pocket for the ticket. "It didn't go to waste."Lucinda Williams plays with Lisa Sanders at Humphrey's by the Bay, 7 p.m. on July 7. $38. 619-523-1010.