This article was corrected on Aug. 1, 2001.
As might be expected from an artist known for her studio perfectionism, Lucinda Williams has never really seemed comfortable on the concert stage. Previous shows found her approaching the audience warily, doling out new songs in large, undigested portions, as though they were medicine, making her performances feel more dutiful than enjoyable. But that all changed at the House of Blues on Monday. Taking the stage in a fashionable cowboy hat, bejeweled choker and leather pants, her hair dyed a platinum blonde, Williams looked as if she could give Madonna a run for her money and delivered a show that was a paragon of effortlessness and loose-limbed pleasure.
It’s a reflection of the musical changes of her new album, “Essence” (Lost Highway/Island-Def Jam). The new songs have traded the detailed, finely wrought sense of place for pared-down, yet intensely felt, interior monologues. Williams adroitly paced the set, introducing the new material slowly, so by the end of the generous, two-hour performance, both the new and old songs felt very much of a piece.
In fact, they were woven into the set so well, it initially seemed as though Williams had slighted “Essence,” until a glance at the set list showed she had played more than half of it. Opening up with a trio of songs from her previous, Grammy-winning “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” the first new song played, “Blue,” felt a little out of place, its amorphous languor a marked contrast to the sharp edges of “Metal Firecracker” or the erotic charge of “Right in Time.” Other juxtapositions were more felicitous: “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” and “Are You Down?” played out like two different perspectives on the same story, and the set ending “Change the Locks,” “Essence” and “Joy” made for a seamless groove.
She is immeasurably aided by her new band, which navigate its way though the songs with a sure touch. Bo Ramsey and Doug Pettibone’s guitars snaked through the songs like ancient bluesmen and modern rocker, respectively; their extended soloing on “Get Right With God,” and “Joy” were among the evening’s highlights. Bassist Taras Prodaniuk (on loan from Dwight Yoakam’s band) and the always solid Don Heffington provided a dependable foundation. And Williams appeared to be enjoying herself so much that she was reluctant to leave the stage, extending the evening’s final number, a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Come to Me Baby” with extra choruses, giving the band a chance to jam as she stood center stage, a beatific smile on her face.