Lucinda Williams welcomed one of her biggest fans, Elvis Costello, on stage with her Friday night at Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank.
Costello, his wife and his entourage almost filled a row at the sold-out concert. He was clearly impressed with the performance, cheering for specific songs and marveling, "Beautiful" and "Brilliant."
At the end of her set, Williams invited Costello to join her on stage for "Drunken Angel," Williams' heartbreaking ode to a self-destructive friend. Costello and Williams previously sang this song together in 1999 at the Guinness Fleadh in New York.
"That's it," Williams exclaimed after Costello returned to his seat. "I'm in the moment — these are the good old days. Oh, my God, I'm humbled. This is the best gig I've had in my entire life."
It certainly was a good one. Williams — now a platinum blonde beneath her cowboy hat — looked glamorous and confident in her pink "mud-flap girl" tank top and black leather pants.
Her Grammy Award-winning 1998 album, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, still has momentum. At each concert, Williams seems to delve deeper into each song — or maybe it's the listener who hears more and more each time. From the sexual longing of "Right in Time" to the contempt and defiance of "Joy," Williams conveys complex emotions through simple lyrics and searing guitar, with a maturity that few contemporary songwriters can match.
Songs from her new album continue that intensity. The title track, "Essence," has the honesty and intimacy at the heart of Williams' work. "Blue" is watery and melancholy.
She also did right by a Howlin' Wolf song, "Come to Me Baby," and she cast a spell over the audience with "Bus to Baton Rouge," with its room-by-room tour of a childhood home.
After the concert, Costello said Williams' work has become ingrained in him.
"She just writes such great songs and makes such good records," he said. "I can't even remember when I first heard her or saw her."
Opening the show was the charming Australian country singer/guitarist Kasey Chambers, whose voice recalls both the young Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline. At 25, Chambers has an open heart and shows great promise, from the warm ballad "This Flower" to the bouncy, introspective song "Don't Talk Back." Her first single, "The Captain" is a remarkable tale of vulnerability.
With another decade or so of life experience, Chambers could well be on her way to approaching the wisdom of Williams.