Art of performance

Lucinda Williams.

Lucinda Williams.

Lucinda Williams, the best songwriter we have right now, proved her writerly chops early on at the Crest Theatre last Thursday. She put her capo on wrong and blamed the guitar, knocked over a bottle of water on her amplifier, interrupted a song midway saying she didn’t want to do it (“It’s really a small song”) and glitched enough notes in “Ventura” to warrant the phrase “wince-worthy.”

So goes the difference between performing a song and writing one. Performers will perform; songwriters belong in rooms that are mostly dark with the one notebook that has everything in it, a guitar that’s a little dusty and some kind of recording device that works often enough. Mostly, if the world were smarter, songwriters wouldn’t be let out in daylight, much less in front of an audience.

In defying this adage for the better part of 30 years, Williams has developed into a big-league-dash charming performer in a way that, if you believe the movie Bull Durham is actually a documentary, professional ball players are differentiated from minor leaguers by the shower mold on their sandals.

Williams loved the Crest, praising it more than once; she loved the audience, which was Sacramento friendly, graying in hair, with more songwriters per capita than most coffee shops. She changed up her playlist because of friends that were following her up and down the state (it’s the one playlist not posted on her Web site).

And she’s happy. This, despite living in Studio City, Calif.: She’s engaged, in love, and the to-date unreleased material shows it. That is the news break, to the degree that new material is constructed from something resembling fact. We have to believe it is. From the day the term “singer-songwriter” was coined and the breach between they that write and they that perform was inextricably blurred, the audience is fed not just music and lyrics but also an autobiography, however confused between real life and real imagination. The new songs—“Real Love,” “Tears of Joy”—are up in tempo and sentiment.

So far, her songs have been darker, revealed with an unswerving honesty. In performance, the integrity is palpable: You were left Thursday thinking you’d been in the room with the real deal. Bluntly likeable, she moves stiff and nervous, relaxing into it as the volume grew. Her band, recently christened Buick 6, is magnificent. Lead guitarist Doug Pettibone crafts solos like fingerprints—each one unique and revealing, the right note at the right time, always respecting the central place of the vocals and the words. Williams sang well, mostly precise (glitches aside). The seminal, Grammy-nominated “Come On” used a little too much reverb to achieve with her voice what on record is guttural and decimating. Other songs—“Joy,” “Concrete and Barbed Wire,” “Real Live Bleeding Fingers,” “Atonement”—were rendered scratchy and true.

Her new album is due out in October.