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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