If you weren’t familiar with his reputation as an esteemed Americana journeyman or the astonishing volume and variety of the music he has issued, you might have been surprised at the performance transformation Jim Lauderdale exhibited last night at Willie’s Locally Known.
When the solo acoustic performance began, Lauderdale was an almost meekish song stylist who allowed the show opening “Three Way Conversation” to speak for itself. Sure, his rustic vocal holler provided the 1994 tune with suitable color. But the sense of unforced Nashville tradition within its construction defined the kind of stylistic assurance that sits at the heart of Lauderdale’s music.
Fast forward to the closing encore of “Hole in My Head,” the product of a longstanding partnership with fellow Americana chieftain Buddy Miller where the mood was dramatically looser. There was no band playing behind Lauderdale, but the music’s rockish feel reflected an ensemble feel all the same.
What came between those songs were, amazingly, 34 other works spanning more than 25 years that reflected the full artistic and stylistic breadth of Lauderdale’s career. So effortlessly comprehensive was the resulting performance that you hardly noticed it took over 2 and a half hours to complete. During the run, Lauderdale didn’t even as much as change guitars. By the time it concluded, the songsmith looked like he could have run the whole marathon again.
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Lauderdale regularly revealed himself as a masterful but plain-speaking writer whose tunes were often as robust as his singing. Such an attribute was underscored by “I Love You More,” one of three works offered from the upcoming “London Southern” album. Sung at an almost glacial pace, Lauderdale created a sense of orchestral longing that could have been fashioned in the 1960s.
On the flip side was “Old Time Angels,” a spin on traditional Appalachian murder ballads that allowed the spirits of such storied victims as Pretty Polly, Little Maggie and the like to plot retributions against their assassins. Dark as the premise was, Lauderdale maintained a delivery that was animated to the point of being playful.
The rest of the far-reaching repertoire boasted songs Lauderdale co-wrote with such diverse allies as Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, British counterparts Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe and Nashville pros like Miller and Melba Montgomery.
There was a wealth of material covering recent albums that included the bluegrass inspired Hunter collaboration “Black Roses” and the country leaning “This Changes Everything” that seemed very much part of Lauderdale’s agenda. But there were also audience calls for more vintage country fare Lauderdale cut throughout the ’90s, including the title tunes to 1991’s “Planet of Love” and 1999’s “Onward Through It All” albums. Neither was planned for the evening’s setlist, yet both reflected as much confidence and command as the songs that were.
Also not part of the game plan was a set closing cover of Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider,” a late addition to the performance played in honor of the Southern rock forefather whose death was announced earlier in the day. Lauderdale had to reference a lyric sheet at times, but his vocals regularly reached ghostly high notes within the song to make it sound as emotive and worldly as all the far reaching originals he knew by heart.