Live Review: Holly Williams, The Ruby Lounge, 25th June 2014

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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.

Holly Williams SBA 003And 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.

20140625_210119_resized_1At 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.

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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:

“Sometimes”
“Railroads”
“Gone Away From Me”
“Happy”
“The Highway”
“Giving Up”
“Let You Go”
“Alone”
“Without You”
“Three Days In Bed”
“Drinkin'”
“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:

Find out more about Holly Williams: www.hollywilliams.com
Find out more about Anderson East: www.andersoneast.com
Find out more about Annie Clements: Annie Clements’ Facebook page

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Without A Song: Holly Williams – The Highway

Holly Williams - The HighwayWithout a song throws a spotlight on albums and tracks beloved of Skin Back Alley. Old, new, classic or cutting edge, our aim is to share good music that has touched us through the years.

Artist: Holly Williams
Album: The Highway
Originally Released: 2013
Label: Georgiana Records

I remember vividly the first time I heard Holly Williams’ music.

It was August of 2013 and it was the middle of the night. Insomnia was whispering in my ear and the bedroom ceiling was rapidly starting to loose it’s appeal as a source of entertainment. As is so often the way, I turned to music to ease my troubled mind.

Via the wonders of modern technology, a music streaming service suggested that I might like to listen to The Highway. Being brutally honest, my prejudices and previous disappointments got the better of me. I looked over the album details and, with low expectation of another anonymous pop-country wannabe, hit play.

And that is when Holly’s voice punched through my chest, pulled all the air from my lungs, slapped my heart upside the head, and made that bedroom ceiling – the entire room, even – disappear.

Astonishing, epiphanic, unexpected and transporting, now I really was awake. Wide awake.

Three quarters of an hour later, I hit play again, and didn’t care what time of the day, night or year it was. I’d also ordered my own copy of the album, and didn’t want it to end.

Opening track, “Drinkin'” showcases Holly’s soulful, smoky, heart-rending voice in the most raw and captivating way. Over gently picked guitar, her impassioned cry of “Why are you drinkin’ like the night is young?” is an overwhelming emotional suckerpunch. The fact that the lyric develops across characters and genders, from “Why are you screamin’ like I don’t have ears?” to “Why are you leaving like we don’t exist?”, probably tells you all you need to know about the calibre of songwriting and the heft of the subject matter.

The musical arrangement grows beautifully in tandem with the lyric, introducing a full band of electric guitar, upright bass, mournful fiddle and drums, that perfectly complement rather than overpower. And the song delivers one killer final blow in it’s last poetic line, turning the earlier desperate questions on their head in a mix of scarred sadness, fateful acceptance and battle-weary wishing – “Hope we don’t die drinkin’ like the night is young.”

Of course it was only after my initial astonishment at what I was hearing that research availed me of Holly’s family heritage. In the firmament of American roots music, that heritage doesn’t come any more prestigious than country legends Hank Williams Jr. or Snr. But whilst Holly’s family and her relationship with it’s history make up a key part of the songs here, it is abundantly clear that Holly is an incredible talent in her own right.

“Waiting On June”, is a masterclass in deeply affecting, carefully crafted storytelling. Documenting the relationship of Holly’s maternal grandparents from initial meeting, through war, marriage, children, infirmity and death, at just shy of seven minutes it may sound like heavy going. And on a profound level, in presenting what Williams describes as the “… precise and true story of my grandfather’s relentless love…”, it is. Yet it is full of light and warmth and connection too, and brings the album to a close on a tender and life-affirming high.

Other songs explore Holly’s relationship with husband, multi-instrumentalist and musical soulmate, Chris Coleman; her deep-seated need to write, play and tour her music; death and the destructive nature of addiction. The record is, in short, a stunning 46 minute exploration of life, the universe and everything, influenced in attitude as much by a love of “…Radiohead and Jay Z…” as it is of the Americana and Country greats.

Guest appearances from Dierks Bentley, Jakob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Gwyneth Paltrow of course do the record no harm whatsoever. Combined with Charlie Peacock on production duty, The Highway is a future classic that demands – and deserves – to be heard.

You can listen to The Highway via the SoundCloud playlist below. Just click on the songs to listen.

Read why we chose The Highway as one of our Top 5 Albums of 2013 here

Holly plays The Ruby Lounge in Manchester, UK on the 25th June and you can buy tickets here

Find out more about Holly, her music, clothing store and other assorted activities via her official website


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The Playlist, 17th April 2014

The music currently crushing our speakers under the weight of it’s excellence:

Click on the album covers to find out more…

Birds Of Satan The Wildhearts - Fishing For Luckies My Ruin - A Southern Revelation Matt Woods - With Love From Brushy Mountain

Miss Shevaughn - LITW Irish Moutarde Raise Em All Diemonds The Bad Pack Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes

HWTH BATINTE Calexico - Feast Of Wire Iron Maiden - SSOASS

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Skin Back Alley’s Top Albums of 2013

2013 has been a fine year for music. It started with a bang in January, when David Bowie surprised everyone on the planet by releasing a new single – and then album – without having made any prior announcements. Beyonce pulled off the same trick just last week, proving that’s she’s not averse to pinching ideas with pride. But rather than huge pop releases from the likes of Katy Perry or Lady GaGa, it has felt as though the real gold has been found around the fringes, away from the monumental marketing budgets, proving that the death of the music ‘business’ certainly doesn’t mean the death of great music. Below you’ll find our favourites from the past year. As ever, let us know what you think, and which artists and albums have been tuning you in and turning you on.

My Ruin The Sacred Mood1. My Ruin – The Sacred Mood
In recent years My Ruin have had one hell of a ride. Hugely promising beginnings, great albums, ups, downs, mistreatment at the hands of music labels and near death experiences. All of which makes it even more extraordinary that they are still here, let alone that 2013 saw them release the finest album of their career. With The Sacred Mood, My Ruin delivered a slab of molten metal that sounded like a band well and truly in control of their craft. Here were artists creating something recognisably their own, but with new depths and textures previously uncharted. Mick Murphy’s guitar is dextrous and deadly, inventive and involving, ably augmented by Luciano Ferrea’s heavy bass workouts. And Tairrie B has never sounded more beguiling. Her trademark mix of honeyed spoken word and splintering metal screams delivered a dark poetry that touched on themes of death, rebirth, stamina and survival. If ever there was a metal band deserving of wider recognition, then My Ruin are it. We wait with baited breath to see how they take on 2014.
Buy it at: Amazon or iTunes | Read our 5/5 album review: here

BATINTE2. Baby Animals – This Is Not The End
Survival and triumphant return were also themes of Baby Animals’ first album of new material in 20 years, the aptly titled This Is Not The End. Suze DeMarchi and co. were well on their way to global domination in the 1990s before circumstances intervened and the band seemed to go out with a whisper rather than a scream. Never fear, for May saw the release of a barnstorming new album packed to the rafters with just the sort of high-octane rock n’ roll that the band’s supporters have been longing to hear. DeMarchi’s pipes sounded as strong as they ever have, and Dave Leslie’s guitar work was in rude health too. In Invisible Dreamer they reached dynamic new heights in their song-craft, carving out an epic centre that pinned together a quality collection. The imminent release of a new live DVD should have fans around the world baying for more.
Buy it at: Social Family Records | Read more about our love for Baby Animals: here

HWTH3. Holly Williams – The Highway
Column inches about Holly Williams have tended to focus on her family history. Perhaps understandably, as in the firmament of American music they don’t come any more prestigious than Hanks Jr or Sr. But in 2013 it was the sound of Holly’s album, The Highway, that had us enthralled. As her soulful, smoky voice navigated the terrain of relationships gone awry, the emotional push and pull of the heart and yes – how she explores and interprets her own heritage as part of American music royalty – the hairs on the back of our necks stood on end as they realised this was the sound of an extraordinary talent all of its own. Vivid stories and a wonderful way with a melody cemented The Highway as one of the highlights of the year.
Buy it at: Amazon or iTunes

LGIYW4. London Grammar – If You Wait
Those who were inclined to be skeptical about ‘the next big thing’ were forced to eat their words upon the release of London Grammar’s eagerly anticipated debut album. If You Wait presented a very fine brand of intimate and minimal pop over which Hannah Reid’s voice soared like the proverbial eagle. At once sounding both classic and yet utterly contemporary, the overall effect was bewitching, and in single Strong, the band had created a heart-stopping beauty of a song that was enough to make anyone forget the world around them for 3 minutes at a time. The trio rounded out the year with a series of shows that had all in thrall. Highly recommended.
Buy it at: Amazon or iTunes

TJWH5. Tony Joe White – Hoodoo
Tony Joe White proved in 2013 that if you spend all your time paying attention to nothing but the newcomers, you’ll miss some of the finest music being made. In Hoodoo, the septuagenarian guitarist and singer released a never less than engaging swampy, atmospheric album of blues numbers featuring plenty of his trademark guitar fluidity and Louisiana drawl. There were also touches of gospel and country, and lyrics concerned with big themes of darkness, danger and spiritual ambiguity. Recorded largely in first takes, live and direct to tape, the album was proof that you don’t need to work in the digital domain to create moody, affecting masterpieces. Although perhaps 50 odd years of writing and recording experience helps.
Buy it at: Amazon or iTunes

Honourable mentions for: Anna Calvi’s One Breath, Lindi Ortega’s Tin Star, Fuck Buttons’ Slow Focus, Savages’ Silence Yourself, Kurt Vile’s Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze, Alter Bridge’s Fortress and David Bowie’s The Next Day.

The Playlist, 20th August 2013

What’s been on heavy rotation on the Skin Back Alley office stereo lately? Here’s a selection:

Holly Williams HighwayThe Highway, Holly Williams
The Sacred Mood, My Ruin
The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars
Hero Brother, Sarah Neufeld
Clocks, Julie Feeney
The Magic Place, Julianna Barwick
Loud City Song, Julia Holter


You can buy the above and many more via the Skin Back Alley Music Store.