Lucinda Williams' s new album, "West," is an alt-country ex orcism, a collection of bluesy chants and rootsy incantations meant to vanquish the artist's grief at her mother's death and rage at one more love gone wrong. Williams had come unmoored, and most of the songs follow suit: They're heavy, banal, drifting things that left this listener wishing that Williams had waited to reclaim her heart -- and her poetry and her melodies -- before putting out another album.
The first third of Williams' s concert Saturday at the Orpheum was as slow-moving and dreary as her new album, although only five tracks from "West" were included in her nearly two-hour set. The singer seemed to be reading from a script. In fact she was reading from lyric sheets on a music stand, and glancing down after every phrase seriously diminished her ability to either connect with the audience or build any kind of flow into her delivery. Still, Williams' s voice sounded glorious: bigger and warmer and clearer than the ragged demo vocals she opted to keep on the final mixes for "West" in the name of emotional authenticity.
A trio of seasoned veterans -- guitarist Doug Pettibone , drummer Don Heffington , and bassist David Sutton -- recreated the album's muted and contained accompaniment on "Rescue" and "Learning How to Live," two of the more user-friendly songs. They also inflicted their tasty , soulless arrangements on sun-dappled "Ventura" and the country gem "Fruits of My Labors," from 2003's "World Without Tears," and the title track from Williams' s 1998 breakthrough, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road." Williams limped through "Righteously," unable to conjure the snap and bite of the song's half-spoken appeal for real manhood. But Pettibone heard her message, finally flexing his formidable guitar muscle and setting the concert on a looser, grittier, and far livelier course.
With her band unleashed, Williams seemed to suddenly reconnect with all kinds of delicious motivation. She found her desire on "Essence," a jubilant paean to being a mess, and flirted with rock 'n' roll heroics on "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings." She danced while spewing the chorus to the talking-blues poem "Sweet Side," and it was a rare and rewarding reprieve from Williams' s constant consultations with lyric sheets.
Erika Wennerstrom -- singer and guitarist from the excellent Ohio blues-punk trio Heartless Bastards, which opened the show -- joined Williams and company for "Joy" a raw and utterly persuasive reclamation of control. "You took my joy/ I want it back," she growled, and then followed it up with "Everything has Changed," a simple folk song written a decade later, featuring this refrain: "I can't find my joy anymore."
Happiness is elusive and no one knows it better, or has played it out more publicly, than Lucinda Williams. By the time she got to "West," the single ray of light on her misery-choked new album, she sounded more tired than hopeful. Or maybe it was just the novel sound of contentment: Williams is engaged to be married.