Lucinda Williams

Belfast's Real Music Club celebrates 15 years of roots music with performances from Malojian and Austin's finest

Loyal fans of Lucinda Williams have been waiting patiently since 1998 – the year of her breakthrough Grammy Award-winning album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road – for her to visit Northern Ireland. So it’s fitting that she finally makes it to Belfast courtesy of Jim Heaney’s Real Music Club in the year of its 15th anniversary.

The Real Music Club – whose usual home is at The Errigle Inn on the Ormeau Road – has a long tradition of not only bringing the best in country, folk and roots music from around the world to Belfast, but also in promoting home grown talent. It’s pleasing to see that tradition continue at the Limelight tonight with opening act, the critically acclaimed Malojian, aka, Stevie Scullion.

Playing a solo spot tonight armed only with acoustic guitar, harmonica and a voice that could charm the angels in heaven, Scullion delivers half a dozen songs of melodic perfection – including heartbreaking covers of Paul Simon’s ‘Kathy’s Song’ and Hank Williams’ ‘(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle Blow,’ as well as his own classic-in-waiting ‘Watch the Rain'. His between song patter is hard for some to decipher (more the acoustics than his Lurgan accent), but the songs hit home and are warmly received.

Dressed in a black leather jacket and jeans, Lucinda Williams takes to the stage without fanfare shortly after 9pm, the crowd only noticing her as she speaks into the mike to introduce the first tune, ‘Passionate Kisses'. The song – first recorded by, and a massive hit for, Mary Chapin Carpenter – makes for a fitting beginning to this ‘Intimate Evening with…’

'It’s nice to be playing in a proper rock club,' Williams tells the Belfast crowd before welcoming guitar maestro Doug Pettibone and bassist David Sutton to the stage. They tear into Randy Weeks’ ‘Can’t Let Go', the Rockabilly train rhythm of the song augmented by Pettibone’s bottleneck blues guitar riffs.

Introducing a new song, ‘Bitter Memory', Williams talks about how it was written for the TV series Nashville. The producers of the show had asked Williams that the song not sound 'too country'. The finished tune – produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach – was duly passed fit for purpose.

'That’s the case with the music in Nashville City today,' Williams asserts: music can be 'too country for Nashville. Maybe that should be the name of my next album.' The song, when played, sounds like Patti Smith fronting the Tennessee Two.

The remainder of the set is a mixture of crowd favourites sprinkled with a few new songs. The notoriously slow-working Williams has been recording with renowned producer Joe Henry on a new album, due out later this year, and she’s keen to try some of the songs out in a live arena. 'They’ll be better once we learn them a bit,' she laughs.

A heartbreaking version of ‘Blue’, from 2001’s Essence album, changes the mood in the room. Williams' voice catches and breaks like the best country artists’ do. She lets you know her pain, reminds you of your own, and channels it into communion between performer and audience.

Other highlights include ‘Drunken Angel', a song written for friend and fellow musician Blaze Foley, who was shot and killed in a drunken argument in 1989. 'Everybody loves this song,' Williams tells us. 'It could be about Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons or Kurt Cobain. It’s a song about tragic loss.'

‘Seeing Black’ is a nod to another deceased musician, Vic Chestnut, who killed himself in 2009. Williams begins, then stops suddenly, the music trailing away. She is caught up in the emotion of the moment. She tears off her leather jacket, straps her guitar back on, and blazes through the song. 'These damn people,' she tells us at the conclusion. 'They get all these good songs written about them.'

The set then becomes more guitar heavy, with Williams and Pettibone playing off one another, and not for the first time the music is reminiscent of Patti Smith. It’s true that there is a incantatory aspect to both artists’ music, as well as a belief in rock ‘n’ roll as an instrument of healing.

After finishing the main set with the joyful rude blues of ‘Honey Bee’ – 'Oh my little honey bee / I’m so glad you stung me / Now I’ve got your honey / All over my tummy' – the trio return for an encore of Nick Drake’s ‘River Man', followed by the Delta sounds of Skip James’ ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’ and Robert Johnson’s ‘Stop Breaking Down Blues'.

The crowd call out for favourites not yet performed (one wag shouts out for ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’), but Williams – after thanking everyone for coming out in hard times and spending money on rock music – brings the show to a close with the Tent revival blues of ‘Get Right with God'. Her closing words: 'Power to the People!'

Judging by the smiles on the faces of the audience as they spill out of the venue and into the cold May night air, Lucinda Williams in Belfast may well have been a long time in coming, but no-one would argue that it wasn’t worth the wait.

The next Real Music Club gig features The Paperboys performing at the Black Box, Belfast on Wednesday, June 5.