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Friday, November 7, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Concert Preview

Lucinda Williams sings it her way

Seattle Times music critic

Concert preview


Lucinda Williams and eastmountainsouth, 7 p.m. Sunday, Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; $28.50-$35.50 (206-628-0888, www.ticketmaster.com; information, 206-467-5510, www.themoore.com).
You almost don't have to know English to understand Lucinda Williams' songs. Her voice tells so much that you can get the gist of her message through the drawls, cracks, rumblings, yelps and whispers. Not since Bob Dylan has a singer-songwriter conveyed as much through the act of singing as through the words.

Like Dylan, Williams doesn't have a good singing voice, in the conventional sense. But it's the right voice, the perfect voice, for the songs. She doesn't even attempt to prettify it. In a take-or-leave-it fashion, she does it her way, deliberately overdoing her drawl to underscore her Southern roots, contrasting lines in a lyric to bring out the light and the dark, mealy-mouthing some words to convey their unpleasantness and carefully pronouncing others to show that she loves them — particularly the names of places. Her edgy, knowing voice adds drama and mystery to her songs, and compels you to listen. Hers is never background music.

Because of that voice, and the gritty honesty and frankness of her songs, it's unlikely Williams will ever enjoy a huge following. She may never headline arenas — although she's played them, opening for big stars who admire her, including Dylan and Neil Young — she will always have a big core of fans because of her stylish, gritty, eloquent, passionate, challenging songs.

On her latest album, "World Without Tears," she emphasizes her singing more than ever. Perhaps influenced by rap, she even talks-sings some songs. She shows in the CD that the way she sings is as important as her words.

Although she released her first album 25 years ago, was long admired by other singer-songwriters, and had her songs covered by major artists (Mary Chapin Carpenter had a big hit with her "Passionate Kisses" in 1992), Williams didn't hit her stride until 1998 when she released her masterpiece, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road." An album of songs based on places in the South that left an impression on her, good or bad (such as "Lake Charles" and "Greenville"), it was a critical and commercial success. The hard-won wisdom and truthfulness of her songs — along with her intriguing singing voice and fine guitar-picking — made her an alternative-country star.

The albums she has released since then — last year's "Essence" and this year's "World Without Tears" — are worthy companion pieces to "Car Wheels." The former was mostly dark, because much of it had to do with the breakup of a long relationship and the cancer death of one of her bandmembers. The latter is more eclectic, with songs of longing, regret, love and survival.

Williams comes from a literate, academic background. Her father is the acclaimed poet, Miller Williams, who read a poem at President Clinton's second inaugural. The family moved frequently, as he took teaching jobs at colleges throughout the South, and even in Mexico and Chile. The young Lucinda absorbed music wherever she went, although she favored the blues. (Her first album was all covers, mostly of old blues songs.) When she began writing songs as a teenager, they were influenced by blues, country, jazz and Mexican music.

She first performed at coffeehouses around the colleges where her father was teaching. She set out on her own while quite young, taking daytime waitress jobs in order to sing at night. She settled at various times in Nashville, New York, Austin, Houston, San Francisco and Los Angeles (where she now lives).

Williams turned 50 earlier this year but still projects a youthful appearance, with her bleached-blond hair, form-fitting pants, skin-revealing tops and stark makeup. She's petite but packs a wallop.

Opening her concert is eastmountainsouth, a country band that emphasizes the harmonies of Kat Maslich and Peter Adams.

Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312 or pmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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