A year ago, these ears were struck dumb by the sound of Holly Williams’ voice on the opening bars of her song “Drinkin’.” And colour me stupid if the same damn thing didn’t happen again last night at The Ruby Lounge, the moment that support act Anderson East opened his mouth to sing.
The effect was all the more powerful for East’s unassuming presence. Cutting a lithe figure, he ambles on to stage, sips a beer, tunes his guitar, and then reveals that he’s been travelling for 25 hours straight from Nashville, TN without sleep, arriving at the venue just 20 minutes before stage time. “It would be funny, if it wasn’t true,” he quips.
Who would have expected the smoky, soulful, emotive sound that erupts from the man’s chest then, as he expertly and fluidly picks at his guitar. With just six strings and his vocal chords to hand, East conjures up a rootsy American sound, drawing on elements of country, folk and southern soul to mesmeric effect.
The audience, seated at round tables adorned with candles and surrounded by stools, look on in awe, something that East interprets as “intimidating silence.” But their appreciation is clear in the applause that erupts at the end of each and every song.
And what songs. We’re treated to a number of cuts from East’s 2012 album, Flowers of The Broken Hearted, including the astounding title track, and what will presumably be the title track from his forthcoming new album of the same name too, “Cotton Field Heart.” At the end of his set, if the guy hasn’t just recruited 150 new enthusiastic advocates of his particular brand of southern-rooted rock n’ soul, we’ll eat our proverbial hat.
Trust us, don’t be one of those fools who buys tickets for a gig but only turns up for the main event, skipping the support act altogether. Buy a beer at the bar, sure, but get yourself to a gig and see this guy live. You won’t be disappointed.
Holly Williams herself could be entirely forgiven for seeming a little less lithe than East. “This isn’t a beer gut. I am six months knocked up!” she confirms later in her set for those who hadn’t figured it out, seating herself at the electric piano for a beautiful rendition of The Highway’s “Without You.” To say that she is six months pregnant, she puts on a hell of a show, the result of hard work, strength, determination and skill.
Rewinding for a moment, the set opens with Holly cutting a lone figure on stage – just her and a guitar – singing “a song from my very first album”, “Sometimes.” The assembled crowd are intimidatingly silent again throughout, as that heart-stopping, dumbfounding voice cuts through the air. Skin Back Alley notices one audience member hunched forward, huge grin in place, having earlier admitted in conversation that he had never before heard Williams’ music. Clearly he’s very glad that he has now.
At the end of the spellbinding opener, Williams introduces Annie Clements on upright bass and vocals, and here’s Anderson East again, on vocals and guitar, standing in for “…my good friend Jackson Browne” who unfortunately, and with Williams’ tongue planted firmly in her cheek, we are informed “couldn’t be here tonight.” Both musicians do themselves, Williams, and the songs proud, delivering shiver-inducing three-part harmonies, tight instrumentation and, on the part of East in particular, extremely accomplished bursts of lead guitar that take flight and help the songs transcend.
Most of the night’s material is cut from Williams’ The Highway, but that’s no bad thing, as the strength of the music is more than apparent in a live setting. And so it is that we all sit, rapped and in reverent mood, as the masterly trio power through stirring renditions of “Gone Away From Me”, “Happy” and “The Highway.”
Williams introduces “Giving Up”, explaining that the song documents her attempts to help a friend struggling with addiction. You can feel hearts breaking in the room as their owners picture the scenes of a family in crisis, poetically detailed in the songs’ lyric and delivered again in that profound and plaintive voice that has had everyone enthralled all evening.
A couple of earlier songs then make an appearance in “Alone” and “Three Days In Bed.” Sandwiched between them is the aforementioned “Without You”, a love letter addressed to husband, Chris Coleman. Together they paint a picture of different eras of Williams’ life; despair at the thought of being alone forever; a whirlwind romance with a lover in France; the knowledge that another human being exists who has proven to be the one with whom love has been finally found. Soul-stirring stuff.
The harrowing sonic suckerpunch of “Drinkin'” then gets an airing, and as if that wasn’t enough, another highlight of the evening follows in a cover version, as Williams explains that she recently had the pleasure of performing with the legendary John Prine, “…who signed my guitar here, just by Mr. Kristofferson and Mr. Nelson.” Illustrious company to be in, but the group’s rendition of Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” that follows blows the place apart. Maybe with the exception of the original, it’s never sounded better.
The evening rounds out with the masterclass in deeply affecting, carefully crafted storytelling that is “Waiting On June.” Documenting the relationship of Holly’s maternal grandparents from initial meeting, through war, marriage, children, infirmity and death, at seven minutes plus, it may sound like heavy going. But it is full of light and warmth and connection too, and brings the night to a close on a tender and life-affirming high.
During the set, Williams briefly alludes to her family heritage, but this night in Manchester belongs entirely to her and her fellow musicians. Last year’s album, this year’s tour, and tonight’s set at The Ruby Lounge prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Holly has a voice, talent and work ethic that is solely, utterly and uniquely her own. Make sure you hear it for yourself.
Holly Williams played:
“Gone Away From Me”
“Let You Go”
“Three Days In Bed”
“Angel From Montgomery”
“Waiting On June”
You can watch fan-shot footage of Holly playing “The Highway” and “Waiting On June” from last night at The Ruby Lounge below: