Lucinda Williams fans know the drill: When she's working on an album, she likes to tour to try out some of her new songs.
"I know you don't have the emotional attachment to the new songs," Williams said late in her 100-minute set at the sold-out Beacon Theatre Thursday night. "But I get so excited about them."
And why shouldn't she? The half-dozen new songs she tested — of about 23 she has completed for her next album — were all worthy of her already impressive catalog of Americana classics. They also offer insights into her current musical direction, which seems to be more upbeat and playful than 2003's excellent but dark World Without Tears.
"We feel good tonight," she said, introducing the straightforward rocker "How I Live." "I'm happy," she added.
She followed that with "Real Love," which shows that the interest in Paul Westerberg-styled rock she cultivated with the last album's "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings" hasn't died down.
Her "socio-political-spiritual song," "What If," is an acoustic hoot — a string of stream-of-consciousness hypotheticals that include "What if the president wore pink or if a prostitute were queen?" and "What if the pope chewed gum?" "What If" is also overflowing with images of bleeding skies and water-walking cats.
Williams remained playful with "Come On," an '80s-drenched, power-chord kiss-off to an unsatisfying lover. It was yet another chance for her excellent longtime backing band — guitarist Doug Pettibone, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Jim Christie — now nicknamed The Love Band, to shine.
Of course, to keep the crowd happy, Williams surrounded her new songs with great versions of standouts, such as "Drunken Angel," "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" and "Essence."
But all of that paled to the lightning-in-a-bottle moment, when the combustible Williams met the fiery Elvis Costello for "Changed the Locks" — a rare opportunity to watch two masters feed off each other's energy. Costello sang at the top of his register, frothing like an angry young man, while Williams matched him, spitting out ferocious, twanging, drawn-out notes.
With her sharp, pointed vocals, opener Tara Angell travels a gravel-voiced road similar to Williams but takes listeners in an entirely different direction. Angell's songs are more open-ended, both sonically and lyrically.
"When You Find Me" and "Untrue," from her debut album Come Down, simply hang in the air, all echoing guitars and eerie organ sounds that make it sound as if a David Lynch movie were going to break out onstage — with only Angell's unique voice to pull listeners through.
While Williams packs her songs with compelling details that unfold like a novel, Angell's songs are more circular, allowing the repetition of her choruses and guitar riffs to make her point.
Both approaches work, though Angell has a ways to go before she can match Williams' mastery. And judging from Williams' new songs, that mastery hasn't peaked yet.