Nearly 15 years after its release, the chorus to Joy – the most pivotal track of Lucinda Williams’ most essential album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road – remains the single most potent and succinct lyric in a catalog filled with brilliant songs of love, loss, betrayal and, on occasion, redemption. “You took my joy. I want it back.” Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
On Thursday night at Louisville’s KCD Theatre, Williams seriously got her joy back. That’s not to say her live shows have ever been as desolate as her songs. But with a sold out audience before her and a 60th birthday barely 24 hours away, the acclaimed Americana songstress cut loose.
During the closing minutes of a two-hour performance aided by guitarist Doug Pettibone, Williams invited the show-opening Kenneth Brian Band (a fine and highly literate indie country-rock troupe from Alabama) onstage and tore into Get Right with God, prompting a modest tent revival clap-a-long and a finale where the singer put down her guitar and simply danced to the groove.
Dancing the night away in front of your audience as you’re about to turn the big 6-0. Now that’s what you call getting your joy back.
Of course, there were all kinds of other delights packed into the show, including a pair of achingly lovely tunes from 2003’s World Without Tears album (the show-opening title track and Over Time), a wonderful vocal duet version with Pettibone of Jailhouse Tears packed with exquisitely profane humor, a trio of unrecorded new songs highlighted the country fried Bitter Memory (with Pettibone tastefully working in licks from the Chuck Berry classic Memphis) and a sterling impromptu cover of the Tammy Wynette hit Apartment #9 that boasted the same stark emotive cast as Williams’ own songs.
Joy was there, too, but it steered closer to the stripped-down strident version featured on the new West of Memphis soundtrack than the rockish Car Wheels original. The intent was unchanged, though. Last night, Joy remained a boozy, bruised blast of defiance that sounded, as did all of this splendid performance, positively youthful.