Like most people, I came to Lucinda Williams through her 1998 breakthrough, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” The sound of the album, her attitude, and her obvious talent as a songwriter resonated. And though “Sweet Old World” and “Lucinda Williams” have become the albums I’d put on first, “Car Wheels” has remained a favorite.
It had been a long time, though, since I’d listened to the whole thing. Even studying up before her show Saturday night at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton couldn’t compare to hearing those songs — that album — from start to finish in concert. Williams is marking the 20th anniversary of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” with a string of tour dates where she’s performing the entire album. It was revelatory Saturday, as part of a 2 1/2-hour performance that also included tunes from her other albums and an unexpected Springsteen cover.
Williams was as engaged and lively onstage as I’ve ever seen her, and after a subdued start (and muddy sound) on “Right in Time,” she and the band settled in and loosened up. She offered wry anecdotes in her Louisiana drawl about most of the songs on “Car Wheels,” which she sang with searing fervor. Though Williams’s voice can run toward thick and craggy, she let fly Saturday, wringing out the heartache, longing and loss that color so many of her lyrics. Most striking, though, was just how powerful those songs remain, especially in sequence — and not just because of her lyrics, or her voice.
Hearing “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” live underscored just how essential a songwriter Williams is. Her music crackles with echoes of the blues, old country motifs, traditional folk, southern soul and a ton of rock ’n’ roll swagger. Williams blends them all into a style that is unmistakably her own, without ever obscuring their origins, which shine through more in concert. The gleaming tremolo guitar part on “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” seemed to hang in the air like a mirage, her band brought out the funky side of “Joy” with the interplay between guitar and bass (and in the smooth backing vocals), and the combination of her vocal melody with fingerpicked acoustic guitar and slide licks on “Jackson” could have come from an Appalachian holler 70s years ago.
After stretching “Car Wheels,” a 51-minute album, past the 90-minute mark with stories about her life and the songs, she dipped into the rest of her catalog with a fiery version of “Change the Locks,” a solo-acoustic rendition of the somber, haunted “Ghosts of Highway 20” and a defiant take on “Foolishness,” which calls out liars, fear-mongers and anyone full of bullshit “pie-in-the-sky” promises. “You can take this one to the polls with you,” she said by way of introduction.
Williams carried that theme into the encore, which she opened with “We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Around,” a vintage-style spiritual protest song she sang with Charles Lloyd & the Marvels on their recent album “Vanished Gardens.” After pairing her own songs “Faith and Grace” and “Get Right With God,” she ended the show with a cover of “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen. Most artists playing Springsteen in concert seem to pick “Thunder Road” or another big hit. Williams went for one of his 9/11 songs instead — and made it surprisingly soulful with an undercurrent of hope in a troubled, tumultuous time.