If some folks thought that the Smithsonian Associates' tribute to Hank Williams at Lisner Auditorium last night was going to be a scholarly affair, Steve Earle set them straight when he introduced "A Mansion on the Hill" as a "hillbilly, bucktooth, bad-attitude version of 'Romeo and Juliet.' " So much for the evening's seminar.
Flanking Earle onstage were his co-headliners--Kathy Mattea, Lucinda Williams and Kim Richey--along with a fiddler and three guitarists. The show unfolded like a Nashville "guitar pull," except that the songs drawn from Williams's nearly 50-year-old repertoire seemed far removed from modern country playlists. Built around a few simple chords and yet strong enough to convey powerful and often dark emotions, these tunes inspired a series of performances that were heartfelt and sometimes genuinely compelling.
As Mattea pointed out early on, it helps to be a man when interpreting some of Williams's tunes. But if Earle had an advantage, he made the most of it, especially when he evoked vivid images of the singer's reckless ways with what turned out to be his last single, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." Like Earle, Lucinda Williams also had no difficulty bringing a stark soulfulness to the material, as she proved on "Take These Chains From My Heart." Even when performing something as upbeat as "Jambalaya," a tune she recorded 20 years ago, Williams demonstrated her knack for stirring up country music ghosts with her keening voice and unvarnished delivery.
Richey's finest moment came when she reprised another Hank Williams hit, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," in a poignant voice shaded by commiserating harmonies. "Sometimes it's just better to get down and wallow in it," she said after expressing her fondness for Williams's sad songs. Mattea, in turn, was at her best--and most comfortable--on Williams's gospel-inspired tunes, offering a little spiritual healing to go along with the honky-tonk heartaches. While some of the tunes were sorely underrehearsed, they sounded ragged but right.
The concert format also called for the singers to perform original material, most of which quickly revealed the legend's influence. The highlights included Earle's finger-picked narrative "Nashville Blues," Lucinda Williams's chanted plea "Concrete and Barbed Wire" and Richey's emotionally tense ballad "Home." A few of these songs were punctuated by crisply executed guitar runs, slippery bottleneck fills and swift fiddle breaks. Mostly, though, the instrumentalists fashioned unfussy arrangements that were in keeping with Hank Williams's musical legacy.