It’s 9:07pm on a beautiful Saturday night as the vertically challenged and musically gifted Lydia Loveless takes the stage at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club. She’s one of five musicians assembled, her vocals and guitar supplemented by drums, bass, pedal steel/12-string guitar, and another guitar or two that intermittently enter the fray.
Loveless belts out blue collar anthems, akin to those of the Drive-By Truckers but with a feminist bent. Her strong, emotive vocals are often in the realm of alto, occasionally reaching down towards contra alto territory. They grab attention without waiting for permission, their storytelling and rhythms less Shonna Tucker than Mike Cooley. She’s a red-headed (for now) spark plug, and while it would be unfair to ignore her band’s virtuosity, it’s clear that she makes the car go.
“Wine Lips” is an early highlight, her enunciation sounding more like “brown lips” and thus offering a once-upon-a-time whiff of scandal. Overall, it’s the sort of track you’d expect from Lucinda Williams, sprinkled with intense immediacy as Loveless gives it her all, singing from her toenails. “Somewhere Else” imports a somewhat unexpected Fleetwood Mac vibe, the vocals and amorphous guitar line showing a familial relationship to “Dreams.”
The song teases us with a lyric that almost certainly doesn’t apply to those nodding in rhythm, her melancholy search for happiness apparently existing in all the wrong places. The track “Head” also ventures to places rarely discussed, sacrificing subtlety upon the alter of unvarnished truth. Her Rickenbacker jangles, providing allusions to psych-rock and early-R.E.M. as the band gets primal behind her. They pass the Jim Beam, cheers ensue as the audience welcomes additional evidence that they have a partner for tonight’s revelry.
She references the women living out loud in the audience, “I was getting so tired of being one of the boys.” You can see her tomboying it up, her aggression breaking free of traditional stereotypes and shocking more sensitive personalities, even while remaining decidedly feminine.
Her voice is incredible, powering through at the right volume — the mix is great — and providing a pathos that seems unassailably authentic. This is her darkness, her journey, her exploration of life’s inequities. It’s the underbelly native to mid-90s Canadian Roots rock bands like Crash Vegas…lurid and plain-spoken, racy and pointed.
Whatever decade and whatever scene Ben Lamb emerged from –tall and athletically built with mid-torso length hair full of tight, perm-like ringlets — he’s a fantastic bass player. His playing stands out in particular, in this case the bassist not retreating into the shadows but taking up residency upon the stage’s lip, preening and playing to the crowd in a way that might be more rock than country. In some ways, this is symbolic of Loveless in general: undeniable country roots are supported by decades of rock practices, giving her a crossover appeal that fits within multiple radio formats.
As she prepares to give way to Old 97s — with whom she’ll later perform a couple of songs — she breaks her guitar strap during “Boy Crazy,” furiously but methodically struggling to return its functionality. It’s a crazy thing to watch, and itself stands strong as a metaphor for her primal and aggressive assault upon life’s lemons.
All Photos | Erica Bruce
9:30 Club | Washington, DC