Lucinda Williams @ The Palais, Melbourne (02/04/2012)

The Louisiana singer songwriter Lucinda Williams commands attention. A punter might mistake the pin-drop silence between songs for audience disengagement. Then, as Williams makes her way back to the microphone, someone fails to contain their excitement, crying out, ‘we love you Lucinda!’ On cue, the rest of the audience bursts out cheering and Williams cracks a smile. ‘Thank you’, she says. Everyone giggles adoringly.

Williams’ set list for the night features songs spanning her long recording career. An ongoing theme in many of her songs is what she terms ‘beautiful losers’.

‘There’s been so many in my life’, Williams reflects wryly. Despite her dry sense of humour, the songs are heartfelt, dealing thoughtfully with the fallibility that she has encountered in others. The song Drunken Angel is about the American singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, who ‘tried to keep up with Townes Van Zandt…but no one could’.

The lyrics take every opportunity to illustrate Blaze’s quirks: duct-taped shoes, long dark hair and orphan clothes. The poetic attention to detail is characteristic of Williams’ style, which was encouraged in her early years by her poet father Miller Williams.

But it’s not all sombre. Roughly halfway through the set, during the softly luminescent Blue, Williams’ voice cracks as she enters the chorus. ‘Oh my…’ she mutters and draws a hand to her face in embarrassment, ‘Sorry everyone.’ Her band plays on, unfazed (possibly suggesting this isn’t a rare occurrence). Eventually, Williams collects herself, gives out directions, and starts off from where she went wrong. The audience couldn’t be more delighted to see this show of vulnerability, and claps and shouts sportingly. Her stage presence is nothing short of hugely likable.

The song finishes and Williams changes guitars. ‘Some people say that I’m a perfectionist…’ she trails off imploringly, staring into the audience, ‘I don’t know about that. I just like things…you know…a certain way.’ She then goes onto explain that she has a crack in her voice, but changes the subject quickly. Not fast enough. Someone in the audience yells out, ‘we love your cracks!’ Everyone cheers. ‘See…this is why I tried to change the subject…’

It is this perfectionism that shot her to acclaim in 1998, with the album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. The album took a long time to record, and ended her professional relationship with her producer at the time. However, the commercial recognition she received for the pristinely recorded album was the turning point in her career. Since then she has gone on to record six more albums. The most recent, Blessed, was released in 2011.

A standout from her set is Unsuffer Me, which is accompanied by a double bass. In contrast to the rest of the set, the lyrics and the delivery are startlingly aggressive and sultry; more raw than the recorded version. There is a particular doggedness that Williams has gained in her later years, contrasting with the wistfulness of her earlier works.

Williams finishes with a cover of Hank William’s I Ain’t Got No Home In This World, and the title song from her most recent album, Blessed. Both songs communicate Williams’ fascination with human struggle, and the need for it to be acknowledged as a significant part of life. She seems to care a lot. It’s quite possible that this is why people like her so much.