There’s one group of artists who make solid records but can’t, for the life of them, translate that into their live performance. Alternately, there’s a whole other group whose artistry really comes alive on the stage, leaving their records in the dust. But Holly Williams belongs in a category all her own. Her last album, The Highway, so perfectly captures her musical essence that its transition to live performance is seamless, flawless. And that made for a wonderful night of music at a sold-out 3rd and Lindsley last night.
A day after turning 33, Williams took the stage flanked by husband/guitarist Chris Coleman and bassist/vocalist Annie Clements. They were also joined by drummer Chad Gamble and guitarist Sadler Vaden, who both did admirable jobs considering they’d never played with Williams and only had one rehearsal. The group set a dynamic pace right out of the gate with the rollicking “Railroads” being chased by the poignant one-two punch of “Gone Away from Me” and “Happy.”
The three-part harmonies and Vaden’s fiery slide solo on “‘Til It Runs Dry” served as the perfect run up to “The Highway.” Williams noted that the album was pretty much finished when that song “fell into her lap” one night while she was getting gas and longing to be on tour. And it is a magical number. Somehow “The Highway” manages to evoke both the aching-hearted yearning for the road and the weary-eyed freedom of riding it.
When Williams invited her mother on stage to back her on a stripped-down version of “Mama,” she introduced Becky White saying how cool it was that she sang on “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and that if there were any Christian cowboys over 50 in the house, her mom would be available after the set. Keeping things on the quiet side for another couple of beats, Williams next offered up a solo piano performance of “Alone” followed by “Without You,” which she wrote for and dedicated to Coleman.
Now, even though you’re buddies with John Prine, it’s no small feat to take on “Angel from Montgomery” … and do it justice. Unless you’re Holly Williams. With just the right amount of rasp in her voice (and some super-styling boots on her feet), she sang it like it was her own, giving Bonnie Raitt a run for her money. The full band came back on stage to bring both the raucous misery of “Drinkin'” and the insistent shuffle of “Giving Up” to life.
After laying down the quivering warble of “Let You Go,” Williams got to what must be the best and worst moment of every show — “Waiting on June,” the deeply felt tale of her grandparents’ lifelong love. Even more touching was the fact that it was the eighth anniversary of her papaw’s passing. Somehow, the room wasn’t a soppy mess of tears as Williams marked the end of her set with the tribute.
For the encore, she flipped to the Williams side of her family tree and threw down a raucous reading of Hank, Sr.’s “I Saw the Light.” Indeed, she had. And she showed it to everyone lucky enough to be there with her.
Photo by Benjamin Padgett.