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Live review: Lucinda Williams at the Wiltern

November 23, 2008 |  1:23 pm

How good was Lucinda Williams' performance Friday night at the Wiltern?

Crazy good. And sane good, sexy good, playful good, anguished good, angry good, cathartic good, brawny good, rockin' good, bluesy good -- head, heart and soul good.

Above all, the Louisiana-born singer-songwriter revels in the music of the soul, and judging from the remarkably rich litany of songs she's written over the last three decades, she's got one of the saddest-sweetest ones ever passed out.

The delightful thing about her new album, "Little Honey," is the way she's allowed the sun to come beaming through the dark spaces of the human experience.

No doubt that has something to do with her relationship with album co-producer and fiancé Tom Overby, whom she seemed to celebrate in several of the new songs in Friday's set, including "Real Love," "Tears of Joy" and "Honey Bee."

One of the hallmarks of Williams' talent is the multi-dimensionality of those songs. "Real Love" could indeed be viewed as an ode to a long-sought-after soul mate:

I found the love I've been looking for

It's a real love, it's a real love

Standing up behind an electric guitar

It's a real love, it's a real love.

It can also be read as the confession of a woman who, having established a profound connection with another human spirit, has fully embraced herself and her musical calling.

She is assisted mightily in that calling on the album and at Friday's performance by her backing band, Buick 6, a quartet that recently put out an album of instrumentals and offered up its own invigorating 35-minute opening set. Guitarists Doug Pettibone and Chet Lyster provide Williams the kind of double-barreled attack Keith Richards and Ron Wood give the Stones, a rock-country-blues muscle she exploited in the resigned-to-fate two-step "Well Well Well" and the earthily sensual rocker "Honey Bee."

After last year's tour, when she played five studio albums in their entirety, Williams may have felt liberated to focus on the freewheeling newer stuff. But she did cherry-pick through her catalog -- performing songs including "Can't Let Go," "I Lost It" and "Joy" from her 1998 breakthrough "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" album, the title track from 2001's minimalist workout "Essence" and the bawdy "Come On" from last year's "West."

"Come On" is built on a stinging play on words directed at an ex, but Williams, her voice ever fuller, darker and grittier as the years go by, used it to chart a path out of anger and into emotional release. The band supplied the controlled burn of Crazy Horse at its most urgent, emphasizing focused power, not bombast.

She took Neil Young-like rock-infused blues to a soul-deep place that seemed to let loose her inner Etta James. It's long been debated whether a white man can truly sing the blues, but Williams left no doubt that this white woman feels the blues down to her marrow.

Having moved back to L.A. after years in Nashville, Williams tapped a couple of Southland music scene veterans, Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, for harmonies on "Little Honey" that they recreated at the Wiltern, adding to the cozy, hometown feel of the 100-minute show.

She ended with "It's a Long Way to the Top," the song that also closes "Little Honey" on a note of both celebration and warning to anyone who aspires to scale a peak. She dedicated it to President-elect Barack Obama with the authority of one who's been to the top and bottom of the mountain, and who's entirely cognizant of what she's gained every step of the way.

--Randy Lewis

Photo: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times