The sadder the song Lucinda Williams sings to her audience, the higher she raises their spirits, and this is what she did Friday night at the mostly filled Palace Theater in her one-hour set before John Prine came on to offer wisdom through his own golden songwriting.
Williams’ songs are essentially photographs, usually a frozen moment with once-strong but now broken female characters. “I have suffered, and I have cried myself to sleep,” she sang in the second tune, “People Talkin’,” telling herself to “keep walkin’.” She followed with one of her classic photographs, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” and then “Greenville.”
She performed without a band—just her on an acoustic guitar accompanied by an electric guitarist. At 59, her voice was as full and clean as ever, projecting strong and deep through the theater.
Nearly every song she sings is beautiful. Each one requires her to take on a new character, demanding the rigors of an actress inside the theater of her own tune. Sometimes they feel biographical, sometimes they don’t. A newer song, “Blessed,” might have been her most powerful, a Walt Whitman-like poem that blessed everyone from teacher to soldier to the battered woman.
She rocked a bit with “Change the Locks,” and “I Lost It.” She misled us with “Joy,” as in, “you took my joy.” She gave us a beautiful new tune that offered a rare silver lining: “I’ve been lied to, double-crossed, but I look at the world in all its glory, and it’s a different story each time.”
Prine came on with his more humble approach, singing songs with humor and political satire, some emotional, some cerebral. He played “Picture Show” early, then “Your Flag Decal Won’t Let You Get Into Heaven Anymore,” which he wrote as a postal carrier before he lived off his music.
The crowd cheered every time that title line came around. These are country tunes, and this was the rare semi-country crowd that rallies behind left-wing messages.
He too strummed an acoustic guitar, accompanied by a bassist and electric guitarist. At 65, his voice sounds as old as it did 20 years ago. He talks through his verses, but somehow delivers the full melody. His songs, too, are beautiful, like “Souvenirs” — which he called his mother’s favorite — about memories.
He sang the crowd favorite “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” and then the beautiful ballad “Don’t’ Let Your Baby Down.” He sang the playful but profound “Fish and Whistle,” and followed with his sad classic, “Angel from Montgomery,” which he played a little slower than his version with Bonnie Raitt.
Then came the softly spoken “Long Monday,” and of course “Sam Stone.”
Together, the singer-songwriters gave a bonanza of beautiful stories, images, characters and songs, even performing one song together at the end of the show.
At the end of her set, Williams sang a Dylan tune, “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Closed the Door.” A new photograph came to mind: a Williams character with a Dylan character hitchhiking on the side of the road, with a Prine character pulling over to pick them both up.
Imagine that conversation.