As the weather thundered and spat into the waning daylight a few ridges away, it seemed just right that Lucinda Williams’ stormy tales had a chance to play the role of a nightcap.
Donning a black leather jacket and jeans adorned by an imposing buckle, Williams made it clear that attitude would flow freely during her Monday set at Deer Valley.
And yet, there was momentary doubt as to what trajectory the show would take. Opening with the mournful “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” a guitarless Williams looked slightly out-of-sorts. Like a slinger without a gun.
Peeking into a notebook on a stand to keep her lyrics straight, she seemed hesitant, her delivery taking on a rather somnambulant quality.
That changed with the second number, however, as Williams took hold of her axe and ripped into “Can’t Let Go,” giving notice that when it comes to playing the blues, a breakneck pace is her forte.
As the night cooled, her fine-tuned engine of a band — drummer Butch Norton, bassist David Sutton and guitarist Doug Pettibone — only made things hotter.
There were several downtempo excursions, including the melancholy “Ventura” and similarly elegiac “Born to Be Loved.” But, as the 19-song set wore on and reached full speed, flavorful noisiness and joy-inducing guitar riffs began to bloom all over.
Well-used tools — the means of manual labor — come to mind when Williams launches into a song.
That purr, as is made by an unhurried file, and that long rip, as is made by a deliberate chisel, speak of experience. Bringing forth musical ideas that are striking in the way antique furniture is when it’s been refurbished and given new life.
That’s Williams pulling in tradition through long notes both Muddy and Woody, and sliding with ease across decades of American sound. That’s Williams making it reverberate with flesh-and-bone concerns deep into the eardrum of a digital century.
Few who claim to make art of personal experience — and whose claims of honesty are delivered in earnest tones — have much interesting to say if their stories don’t resemble a post-quake seismograph. Fortunately, Williams proves a master at delivering unadulterated news of life’s heavy blows with no safety nets attached.
Case in point is the poignant “Little Rock Star.” Inspired by the life of Amy Winehouse — but written before she died — it rang through the air with all the power of an eerily confirmed premonition. Its rain dance drum beat pounding out a rhythm of regret.
There’s a penetrating warmth to Williams’ age-trued voice. Smoke and moonshine warmth. It makes her gripes and lovelorn rancor feel appropriately stark. And gives them the weight of reports from the front lines. Of couples’ quarrels. Underclass hardships. Deaths of those one feels closest to.
But it was a series of what she called “kiss-off” rockers that showed her at her bitter best: jamming with glee to the recently penned “Protection,” relishing the tough-love lyrics of “Jailhouse Tears,” in which the narrator refuses to be sweet-talked by a lover, whom she left, into letting him come back.
Yes, the gripes work. Partly, it seems, because hers are not complaints pining for consolation.
The performance, which included one guitar malfunction, a couple of false starts and a fair share of spicy language, culminated in a encore of high notes: The propulsive “Honey Bee,” during which an avalanche of energized fans finally shimmied down to the stage with boogie on their minds. A cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” which was as affecting as it was surprisingly danceable. And the gospel-tinged rocker, “Get Right With God,” with which Williams made sure her exit was accompanied by a loud echo.
But there had been still another sound that made waves Monday.
It came courtesy of an expressive voice, a few chords, and a whole lot of tongue-in-cheek truth.
Though Jill Sobule was, in name, the opening act, her presence was that of a headliner. Whether heavily autobiographical (“Cinnamon Park”), lightly literary (“Heroes”) or sweetly reverential (“All the Young Dudes”), she connected with the audience in a palpable way.
With the Snowpark Amphitheater sharking over her, Sobule made the most of her mock-coquettish banter and playful self-deprecation. The pinnacle of inspired silliness was when she and Doug Pettibone (who accompanied her on about half her set) engaged in a faux-guitar duel on a Hendrix riff.
Echoes, then. Like nightcaps.
Ones which are meant to be savored. Ones which take you places up until the moment sleep takes over.
In one of her pivotal songs, Williams tells of losing her joy and wanting it back. Here’s letting you know you would have come across a double dose of it onstage in Deer Valley last night.
Who • Lucinda Williams; with Jill Sobule the opening act
Where • Snow Park Outdoor Amphitheater, Park City
When • Monday, July 16
Bottom line • Lucinda Williams treats Deer Valley to a dynamic mix of roots rock, attitude.