A funny thing happed at the El Rey Theater Wednesday. At the opening night of Lucinda Williams’ five-night run of shows, each dedicated to a different album, one would have expected Williams’ extraordinarily rich catalog of songs to be at the forefront, but instead, her band took centerstage.
The two-hour-plus show — the 2003 Lost Highway release “World Without Tears” performed in full, followed by an hourlong set drawn from the rest of her catalog — was an impressive display of Williams’ songwriting prowess; it would have to be a pretty fine band indeed to elbow it out of the spotlight. But her new band, anchored by guitarist Doug Pettibone and former Eels drummer Butch Norton, is just that good. They even managed to upstage a particularly addled and frisky Shelby Lynne, who heated up her guest slot on “Still I Long for Your Kiss,” turning her duet into a full-on flirtation. (Ann Wilson joined Williams on a shambolic version of “Get Right With God.”)
The band just may be the best Williams has ever worked with. Pettibone, who has been playing with Williams, continues to impress — his solos touch on styles ranging from Keith Richards to Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Don Rich — and new addition Jeff “Chet” Lyster (on loan from the Eels) counters with some tough, Stonesy rhythm playing. The real star, however, is Norton. He plays with an unforced precision reminiscent of Charlie Watts, bringing a light, subtle touch and adding extra, fluttery high-hat accents to “Ventura” or pounding away behind the street corner blues of “Atonement.”
The band reached its apex on “Joy,” straddling the Delta and Zeppelin with a touch of the Doors’ swirling mysticism.
Williams is plainly jazzed by their perf and singing better than ever. “World Without Tears,” her second album of songs after moving from the narratives of “Car Wheels” and “Sweet Old World” to pared-down, starkly poetic language (the unsentimental breakup song “Ventura” offers some of her finest lyrics), is probably her most vocally demanding disc. Williams experimented with melody and phrasing, with songs such as “Righteously” and “American Dream” (the latter an honorable if unsuccessful attempt at a topical broadside) occupying a place somewhere between rap and beat poetry. This style demands a precision that could turn forced on the album, but live, she locked into the band’s unerring rhythms and sounded on point. She also made the album’s more traditional songs, especially the title tune and the solo “Words Fell,” sound even more tender.
The tenderness initially carried over to the night’s second set, which started off slowly with a couple of tunes from “West” but soon found its footing with more raucous material, including a new tune, the lusty “Honey Bee.” Williams said she has been writing new material at a prolific pace — good news in the long term. In the short term, she and her band are only going to get hotter and tighter; she continues her Los Angeles run Saturday through Monday and repeats the cycle in New York on Sept. 29-30 and Oct. 2-4.