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"
eriwinkle Sky"(RealAudio excerpt), "Allergic Boy" and, from Williams'
most recent album, Musings of a Creekdipper, the wedding lullaby "Let It
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
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)"
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.