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Lucinda Williams rocks when ready

By RICK GERSHMAN
Published March 3, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Six songs into her show Tuesday at Jannus Landing, Lucinda Williams and her band began to hear calls from fans for some up-tempo favorites.

"We'll do Changed the Locks and Joy," she responded, chastising the crowd in good-natured fashion. "We've got to work up to it. Y'all just chill out."

Williams didn't follow with "like us," but it would have been appropriate. While she performed selections from her remarkable catalog of blues, country, rock and folk songs in fine form, Williams opened the show in such a relaxed manner that some in the packed courtyard grew restless.

Perhaps the crowd's calls had some effect, because Williams shattered the leisurely tone with grooving renditions of I Lost It, Still I Long For Your Kiss and Righteously, the latter the lead single from 2003's Grammy-nominated World Without Tears.

Until that point, Williams - one of the most revered, if not prolific, songwriters in popular music - seemed happy to lull fans into a lovely, blissful trance by slowing the tempos of songs mostly culled from Tears.

Lean and mean at 51, Williams took the stage wearing skintight blue jeans, a black T-shirt and jacket, and an off-white cowboy hat. She played rhythm guitar throughout the night, opening with a relaxed rendition of Drunken Angel. That's a serene tune even in its studio version, but when Williams followed with Ventura, a highlight from Tears, she slowed it down to a crawl and followed with one of her lightest ballads, Reason to Cry.

Then again, even Williams at half-speed remains an astonishing experience for true believers. Next up was Those Three Days, a blisteringly heartbreaking winner from Tears.

Williams' aching, gritty voice remains one of the most heartfelt and distinctive in music, and Days is so personal and intimate it's chilling. Her voice echoed with the agony of love lost as she sang: "Scorpions crawl across my screen, make their home beneath my skin. ... Did you only want me for those three days? Did you love me forever just for those three days?"

After Williams got the crowd dancing with Righteously and People Talkin', she placated fans with Changed the Locks, memorably covered by Tom Petty, and Joy. The latter worked up into a blistering jam led by lead guitarist Doug Pettibone, the not-so-secret weapon in Williams' arsenal. In addition to electric guitar and mandolin solos, Pettibone complemented Williams with backup vocals and punctuated several songs with grooving harmonica.

Williams' hardest-rocking song from Tears, Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings, wrapped up her set after a tight 12 tunes. She returned minutes later with an encore that kicked off with two blues numbers, a throwback to her first blues-folk recordings of decades ago. She followed with two highlights from her most popular album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road: Lake Charles was a brilliantly bittersweet memorial to a old friend, and she dedicated Bus to Baton Rouge to her mother, who is in the hospital.

[Last modified March 3, 2004, 01:45:07]

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