Time was that Lucinda Williams was merely a critics' darling adored for literate, often heartbreaking songs that gracefully straddled country, folk, and rock. Her uneven live performances, though, seemed to prevent her from going beyond that circle. While her best bout in the studio remains 1998's Grammy-winning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,
Williams's concerts have continued to improve as she discovers greater range in her maturing voice and a new looseness in front of fans. Both make her first live album all the more appealing. Recorded in 2004 at the lauded San Francisco venue, Live @ the Fillmore
is both a neat audio postcard from a stop on Williams's tour for World Without Tears
and an excellent representation of her far-ranging talents -- commanding balladeer, sweaty blues queen, convincing rocker. On "Fruits of My Labor," the depth of expression in her voice is both poignant and heated, while her honeyed warble on a subdued, acoustic-based "Bus to Baton Rouge" adds resonance to a song that plays out like a short story. The live setting allows Williams and her firecracker band to wallow in the blues, as on extended versions of the scorned lover's plaint "Joy" and the searing "Atonement," which she introduces as "influenced by ZZ Top." But she sounds just as confident dishing out the melodic rockers that have been her stock-in-trade since Rosanne Cash had a country hit with Williams's "Passionate Kisses" (notably absent from the set list here), from the sweet-sounding "I Lost It" to the fevered "Essence" to the biting "Righteously." While longtime Lucinda devotees might lament the unbalanced representation of her songbook (all but four songs are from her last two albums) and the lack of new material, Live @ the Fillmore
is a deeply satisfying listen from top to bottom.