Victoria Williams Ambles From Folk-Pop To Jazz

Quirky singer-songwriter and versatile band stretched out in lengthy concert.

SAN FRANCISCO -- This is how Victoria Williams warmed up for her

Wednesday night show at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall: First,

she sat quietly with her band backstage and drank some tea with soy milk.

Then, without warning, she bolted from her chair and started tearing back and

forth, up and down a hallway underneath the auditorium, squealing "la, la, la, la,

la, la, la" into a portable tape recorder held just below her lips.

It wouldn't be the last time on this particular night that Williams took an unusual

approach to her unique brand of naturalistic folk-pop. Over the course of a

meandering show, the quirky California singer drew from all four of her albums

and threw in some offbeat standards delivered in her Olive-Oyl-meets-Billie-

Holiday voice. With Williams' idiosyncratic approach to classic Tin Pan Alley

tunes, she sometimes came off like some new breed of cabaret singer. And it worked.

She quietly took the stage, wearing a furry brown hat, white shirt, little brown

vest and baggy brown jeans. Slack-shouldered and ambling, Williams planted

herself on a chair and casually leaned into the microphone to sing "This

Moment." As she plucked at her acoustic guitar, her fellow musicians joined in

one by one.

Williams was backed by the Harmony Ridge Creekdippers for the 31-song, two-

and-a-half-hour set. The band is a crack outfit that features Williams' husband,

ex-Jayhawks member Marc Olson on bass/guitar, as well as Calexico/Giant

Sand's Joey Burns on cello/guitar, John Convertino on drums/vibes, Razz

Russell on fiddle/mandolin, Tim Ray on piano/organ and Jon Birdsong on

coronet. Owing to the multi-instrumental duties of most of the musicians, the

stage at the cozy Great American -- an ex-brothel with a classic old theater feel

and ornate gold-leaf on the walls and ceiling -- was littered with instruments. It

gave the evening the feel of an informal back-porch jam between friends. That

is just how Williams likes it.

The show proceeded at Williams' whim, with the flighty singer jumping from

piano to guitar to banjo. Though it seemed casual, the set flowed smoothly

through her career, as she offered thoughtful, warm renditions of such folky

songs as "Kashmir's Corn,"

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Williams,_Victoria/Periwinkle_Sky.ram">"P

eriwinkle Sky" (RealAudio excerpt), "Allergic Boy" and, from Williams'

most recent album, Musings of a Creekdipper, the wedding lullaby "Let It

Be So."

Williams mixed in a few surprises, too. Taking center stage with only Birdsong

on coronet and Ray at the piano, she fidgeted her way through two

mesmerizing covers of jazz chestnuts, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and a Betty-

Boopish "I'm Old-Fashioned." Her voice shifting from creaky to powerful,

Williams cocked her head, played with her hair, squirmed in her chair and

otherwise acted up in an unconventional approximation of a jazz crooner.

Watching the interplay between Olson and Williams was at least half the show.

Olson seemed keenly aware of his wife's needs, both musical and otherwise.

He adjusted her effects pedals during songs such as "Century Tree" and more

fittingly for the blue folk-funk hybrid "You R Loved" from 1994's Loose

album. He made sure that her banjo was amplified properly, opened a bottle of

water for her when she couldn't seem to pry the lid loose and later, tried to get

Williams to wrap things up and save her strength for the next stop on the tour.

Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1990 and was the subject of

the 1993 Sweet Relief tribute album, which raised funds for her medical

care.

Still, despite her husband's concerns, Williams was not about to let her

audience go that easily. She was having too good a time. After hitting some

bum notes during "Love," she bit her thumb sheepishly, only to slide back into

her sometimes shrill, but still melodic yo-yo of a voice as she belted out the

song's chorus "love, everybody needs it/ love, everybody wants it."

After Olson sang his Creekdippers country jam "Hummingbird," Williams

somehow convinced the 400-plus audience members to show off their favorite

bird calls. She introduced the nostalgic

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Williams,_Victoria/Train_Song.ram">"Train

Song (Demise of the Caboose)" (RealAudio excerpt) with some playful

"whoo-whoo"s that were echoed by her rapt fans. And she easily got away with

cooing "San Francisco smells good" as she caught a whiff of some fragrant pot

smoke wafting across the room.

After two encores, the evening ended with yet another standard, "Stars Fell on

Alabama," with Williams belting out a passionate jazz tune like the late, great

rock-blues singer Janis Joplin on helium as the earthy tones of Birdsong's

coronet faded into the night.