At Tipitina's, Lucinda Williams looked back with ambivalence.

Lucinda Williams cover art

Sunday night, Lucinda Williams started a two-night stand at Tipitina's by playing her self-titled debut album for Rough Trade Records in its entirety. The classic album show is often a better concept than it is an experience because the albums often reveal themselves to be less interesting than remembered. Last night, that wasn't the issue, but it was the lesser half of the show.

That album represents the moment when Williams started to get a handle on her art, with "Passionate Kisses," "Big Red Sun Blues," "Crescent City" and "Changed the Locks." But those strummy folk-blues songs seem so far from where she is today, musically and lyrically. It's the difference between "Passionate Kisses" and "Joy," which she played in the second half of the set. In one, she reasons and rationalizes why she should be given passionate kisses; in the other, she's going to Slidell to take her joy back. 

They're not the product of an entirely different artist. "Changed the Locks" documents the steps she'd take so a guy can't find her because she's defenseless against his charms - not that far removed from "Essence" (love is the drug), and "Lake Charles" and "Drunken Angel" (the messier the better). But the emphasis is on her effort to keep him away, not his irresistability.

The distance showed in the performance. Williams twice forgot the lyrics to "The Night's Too Long," but it was more a matter of engagement. She and her three-piece band played the songs without moving into them. That wasn't obvious until she got to the songs from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and the albums that followed it. The performances became more physical and fresher. The woman in those songs is one she has much better contact with than the woman 25 years younger who sang "I Just Want to See You So Bad."

Williams didn't tank the songs. In fact, her singing was some of her best in years at a New Orleans stop. There have been nights when her accent has thickened up until she sounded like an Arkansas cavewoman, while she seemed narcotized for other shows. She sang with clarity and care last night, respecting the songs and people's love of them - probably even her love of them. But just as it's hard to go through high school yearbooks and figure out the thought process behind some haircuts and wardrobe decisions, the woman who wrote those songs is too far in the her past for Williams to fully access again.

Tonight is the second night of Lucinda Williams' stand at Tipitina's.