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Real Live Bleeding Fingers

The first time I heard the title of Lucinda Williams' breakthrough Grammy-winning album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, I mistakenly heard it as Cartwheels on a Gravel Road. Bloody hands came to mind, as did the words "rough and tumble," and I thought, "Damn, that is one joyous, tough chick."

At Tuesday night's show at the Catalyst--which also happened to be the last stop on her tour--Williams was sporting tight jeans, a low-slung belt and a sassy rock-star haircut that only affirmed that cartwheeling first impression. There's something raunchy about the gaunt roots rocker that seems to get more pungent and piquant as the years go by. And that gravelly voice, amplified to gigantic proportions in the Catalyst pit with just the tiniest pinch of reverb in it--that voice should stay safe in the Smithsonian museum where it belongs, if just to preserve it from the hard living it's so obviously been through. But I suppose Martin Scorsese already made an effort to immortalize her vocal voodoo, which was captured in his recent PBS blues series, in which she sings a version of Skip James' "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues," a fact that she was kind enough to clue us in on just before performing it live.

More than once during the evening, Williams and her band succumbed to their inner jam-band and unleashed a strain of rootsy psychedelic blues. She confessed her indulgent sin in advance, and anyway it would have sounded great if it had gone on for hours ... but thank God it didn't. No, they only noodled long enough to show that Lynyrd Skynyrd had the right idea, if only they could have worked it out the way Lucinda and her band did, making nonstop rocking once and for all appealing, even sexy--less fist-pumping dirges and more along the lines of an Allman Brothers jam. "Righteously" takes its cue from the Rolling Stones stretching their legs at the end of "Sympathy for the Devil," but only after some of the hottest lyrics ever: "When you run your hand all up and run it back/ Down my leg/ Get excited and bite my neck/ Get me all worked up like that/ Flirt with me don't keep hurtin' me/ Don't cause me pain/ Be my lover, don't play no game/ Just play me John Coltrane."

Most songwriters would be lucky enough to stumble upon a lyric like that once in their lives, but Lucinda just keeps 'em coming. "Jackson," "Essence," "Still I Long for your Kiss," "Joy"--all good things. She harkened back to her eponymous album with a steel-sliding performance of "Changed the Locks." It, too, has some superlative lyrics, these on the badass side of the tracks leading to the summing-up finale: "I changed the lock on my front door/ I changed the number on my phone/ I changed the kind of car I drive/ I changed the kind of clothes I wear/ I changed the tracks underneath the train/ I changed the name of this town."

I bet she could do it, too. Now if Lucinda & Co. could just learn "Free Bird" like she promised, those comedians who request it at every show might actually have something worth yelling about.

Songwriter Surprise

While it was no surprise that veteran songwriter and KPIG favorite Sherry Austin took one of the top slots at Zelda's Tuesday night Songwriters' Showcase, who knew that young Jason Strubbe and his guitar and ukulele would swoop into the last spot and take first place? But hey, when you've got a great voice, a funny little shtick on the uke, a charismatic presence and a feel for how to write a lively, catchy song, who's gonna stand in your way? Come check out the carnage or get in on the action yourself at the weekly contest; call 831.688.8435 for details.

Mike Connor

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From the December 3-10, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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