Lucinda Williams’ Essence a Rare Treat

Austin, Texas, has nurtured Lucinda Williams and her music over the years, so she returned to the city and its annual South By Southwest (SXSW) Music and Media Conference this past weekend to preview songs from her next album.

Williams appeared twice at the Austin Music Hall during the 15th annual event — briefly at the Austin Music Awards on Wednesday (March 14), and for a more extended set at a launch showcase for Lost Highway, the new, Universal-distributed label, on Friday (March 16). In each appearance she concentrated on songs from Essence, her next CD, slated for release in June.

“I love coming back and playing in Austin,” said Williams, who lives in Nashville, during her 50-minute performance Friday night. The Texas capital “has such sweet memories,” she went on to explain, recalling that she once sang on the street near the University of Texas, her guitar case open for spare change. “If it wasn’t for Austin, I wouldn’t be where I am right now,” Williams admitted. “This is the place.”

Of the eight new songs she rolled out for the SXSW audience, “Get Right With God,” a throbbing, rootsy gospel number driven by Bo Ramsey’s slide guitar, sounded closest in spirit to her critically acclaimed 1998 release, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. “I would kiss the diamondback/If I thought it would get me to heaven,” went one line.

“Lonely Girls,” “Blue,” “Bus to Baton Rouge” and “I Envy the Wind” explored more wistful moods. “Lonely Girls,” especially, relied on an incantatory lyricism. The “lonely girls” of the title sing sweet sad songs and wear pretty hairdos and shining, sparkly rhinestones. “I oughta know about lonely girls,” Williams sings in the final verse.

Sporting a straw cowboy hat, a top that said “famous” on the chest, black leather pants and blonde-again pigtails, Williams looked uncommonly authoritative and confident. At one point, she put down her guitar to deliver a song straight on, while her phalanx of pickers — slide specialist Ramsey, Billy Watts and Neal Casal, supported her. Rounding out the band were ex-BoDean Michael Ramos on keyboards, frequent Dwight Yoakam sideman Taras Prodaniuk on bass and former Lone Justice and Jayhawks member Don Heffington on drums.

“Essence,” the title track and first single, is anticipatory and sensual, somewhat akin to “Right in Time” on Car Wheels. Radio will get a slightly edited version of the song. The jangly “Out of Touch” and the funky “Are You Down” played well with the Austin audience.

Williams closed both appearances with “Joy,” the most aggressive, confrontational song on Car Wheels, and a groove-driven song that afforded her musicians a chance to stretch out one more time.

A SXSW appearance by Williams during the tortured years before release of Car Wheels is still talked about as one of the great performances in the 15-year history of the conference. In part, the show is remembered because it teased the public with extraordinary new material that would not appear on disc for months to come.

That memory made the weekend’s performances all the more triumphant for Williams. Working with Charlie Sexton as her producer and recording in Minneapolis, she finished Essence in a matter of months.

“This is a blast,” she told the awards show crowd Wednesday night. “I didn’t take too long this time.”