Train Wreck Averted. Lucinda Williams, Wellington, 15 April 2009

Whatever was in that milkshake-sized paper cup that Lucinda Williams sipped from at the Wellington Town Hall last night, it helped avoid almost certain disaster. In a show of two halves, the legendary Louisiana-born songstress eventually snatched victory from the jaws of defeat after early sound problems threatened to derail her first show downunder in a decade and a half.

Quite why Auckland acoustic duo The Bads made the journey south to “open” for Miss Williams I’m not sure – they were restricted to 15 minutes of pleasant country-pop offerings while the crowd found their seats. Looking for all the world like a Gillian Welch and David Rawlings setup (Brett Adams with tiny guitar and lightning fingers) they really were an offering only – almost a sacrifice, as it turned out.

Hardly had The Bads – who were very good – unplugged, than Williams’ band sauntered on stage and began a noodling sort-of jam that suggested a quick sound-check before the lady herself appeared. Forty minutes later they were still there, not a word spoken, twin-guitars screeching in to the voluminous town hall theatre. It transpired that at Lucinda’s suggestion, their aftershow jams should be recorded for posterity and released as an album and that this was their chance to profile themselves as The Buick Six, a band in its own right. Really, it was an unnecessary intrusion into the evening, not helped by a rather LA attitude and a PA volume that would be hard to come down from.

A much needed beverage at the interval and we were settled back in our seats at 9.10 pm, just in time for the Buick Six to reappear, along with a biker’s moll standing at the microphone. Head-to-toe black (normally-blonde hair included), boots, chains, the works – it took a while to realise that this wasn’t one of the stage crew but the diva herself! Launching into the first song looking a bit uncomfortable, the reason became apparent when she aborted the next, claiming “echoey shit” going on in her ears and ten minutes worth of stopping and starting didn’t really solve the ear bud monitoring problem. A good-natured crowd assured Lu that all was well out front, if not in her head, so why not just get on with it? Lots of rushing around on stage, protestations to the monitor sound team side-of-stage, assurances sought from the audience that we were happy with the sound we were getting, and the show stuttered to a start.

The beauty of live music – especially heavily-amplified rock music – is that things have the potential to go very wrong, particularly when you’re dealing with lots of technology and fragile artists like Miss Williams. As with another recent visitor, Ryan Adams, Williams has a history of spitting the dummy when the cables have some kinks or the stars above the venue aren’t quite lined up correctly. Heart in mouth, I was waiting for her to melt down last night, but song by song and sip by sip she climbed back in to the show and started dishing up some treasures from a dozen or so albums going back exactly 30 years.

Another distraction the poor girl had to contend with was her own band. Occasionally I got the strong impression that the backing band, guitarists in particular, thought that they were actually the main attraction here, such was their complete lack of deference to the reason for their presence. Talking among themselves while playing behind her, constantly gesturing to the sound guys, strutting around the stage like  peacocks, it was like there were two shows going on. And while I’m having a moan about the band, what is it with these guys who feel the need for a fresh guitar for every song? There was so much activity on stage between songs that it was like a hamburger eating competition. And a guitar technician coming and going dressed in a suit and tie? Geddouddahere!

By half way through the set the paper cup genie had worked her magic and Lu was noticeably into the night. The band was starting to get in behind a bit, the scrabbling on the sound desk had calmed down, and things were ticking along nicely. Rather alarmingly, however, the back catalogue is now such that Miss Williams felt the need to regularly refer to sheets of music on a stand in front of her – a little premature aging perhaps? Well, she is 56 …

Gripes with the band’s ‘attitude’ aside – and I’ll exclude the terrific Stetson-topped drummer from such criticism – the two-hour show propelled itself along to a satisfactory conclusion, and the ‘encore’ section (really, is such pretense necessary?) was a tour de force with a mixture of solo acoustic gems and a searing performance of “Unsuffer Me” from the ‘West’ album. Band dismissed, Williams ended with some gracious words and a rather tired solo rendition of her breakthrough song from 1988, “Passionate Kisses”. Obligatory standing ovation ensued.

Whether or not we see the three-time Grammy winner back on our shores, this show was a timely reminder that persistence is everything, that self-belief (however fragile) can get you places, and that a propensity for bad choices of both men and stimulants can provide excellent material for songs. And if you’ve got a voice like Lu’s to put those songs out into the room, a little magic can be conjured up – with the help of a waxed paper cup.