There are live records, and then there are Live at the Fillmore records. The legendary venue has become such an archetypal setting for the concert album that it’s practically dishonest to still call the thing “live.” Face it: the show’s getting recorded and that’s the point. Isn’t it just a big studio that lets people in?
Whether or not that’s fair, the fact remains: a band’s Fillmore record announces its importance in advance. Obviously Lucinda Williams’s live double-disc marks a career epoch: it’s her Fillmore album. And although the venue doesn’t spark an unqualified masterpiece for the grand dame of alt.country, a musky reverence seems to seep into the record, and the best moments here are among the best she’s committed to tape.
It will disappoint many followers that the songs on Live skew heavily in favor of Essence and World Without Tears, the mixed-bag recent releases that pale next to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998) and Lucinda Williams (1988). That’s a fair complaint — it seems downright cruel to record at the Fillmore and skip “Drunken Angel” — but this gives Williams a shot to explain those baffling LPs. Guitarist Doug Pettibone helps the cause; his golden lap steel spins a warm cocoon for many of the tracks on Live and renders the slow-drawl takes of tunes like “Ventura” and “Words Fell” thick with feeling. The live treatment also separates the chaff, however, and there’s no saving the grating “Sweet Side,” which is begging for an early retirement, pretty slide licks or no.
The real stories of Live, though, are its few outstanding highs and its one major letdown. Appearing midway through the first disc, “Out of Touch” cuts through a molasses of lagging ballads with a surge of electric riffage and bitterly gorgeous vocal harmonies. Guitar-wise, at least, it recalls the brawling Americana of Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. This blazing rendition bodes well for “Real Live Bleeding Fingers,” the surly Stones-ian yell-along that was the unequivocal standout of World. But it’s not to be: the song is tragically rushed from the outset and never grabs traction.
Luckily, “Essence” steps up to play hero. That title track was already one of Lucinda’s best since Car Wheels, but the Fillmore version reveals how much the original was tied up in the gloomy production of its LP. That cut lost much of its innate grit amid ethereal reverb and the spooky incantatory delivery Lucinda dubiously adopted on both Essence and World, but this one lets loose. Through a voice cracking under the weight of her words, the weary singer confides and resigns; the battle may be a foregone conclusion, but she’s damn sure gonna be the one singing its hymn.