Holly Williams at Joe’s Pub (New York, N.Y. – May 28, 2014)
The great thing about New York, more than any other town, is that, whether you are standing in line or at a table, you can become good friends with those around you for awhile. And, you never know who you’ll be next to.
That was mostly true last night at Joe’s Pub for Holly Williams. We had the good fortune to sit with a childhood friend of Ms. Williams. We shared stories–she was fascinated to hear what Soho and St. Mark’s were like pre-tourism, pre-gentrifaication, when a single block separated Hasidic from Puerto Rican, loft jazz, Jim Jarmusch, Laurie Anderson, CBGBs.
It seems Ms. Williams was lean and lanky in grade school. And, even though, as a teenager, she was prohibited from attending her father’s shows, she and her friends would find a way to sneak in and wreak a little 13-year-old havoc. My favorite story was how, during one show, since they could not find any paint, they inscribed “Honk for Hank” on the side of his car with shoe polish.” The next day they had to pay the piper and remove it. The problem was that, unbeknownst to them, shoe polish has a corrosive effect on paint. So, even though they scrubbed it off as best they could, the words–ghost-like–remained.
There were no tales of woe or abuse–those would come later in adulthood, told by Ms. Williams herself: Her sister, checking her cell phone once too often while driving, caused an auto accident that left them both hospitalized. There was a friend’s substance abuse, three days in Paris, in bed with a stranger. Only lovers left alive.
This would be the fifth time I had seen Holly Williams in nine months; the most recent times were in the middle of a blizzard in Virginia opening for Jason Isbell and, last month, when she and her band drove from goodness-knows-where just to play a single 30-minute set at MerleFest’s small Cabin Stage. I admired not just her performance, but her determination to get out there and put the perspiration behind the inspiration. Even if she was, essentially, a filler act that night.
Last night, she was the headliner in the best-run venue in the country’s largest city. But she had food on her mind, having just had a great dinner at a new restaurant down the street while her guitarist husband was halfway round the world playing another gig. She said she had avoided guitarists as they were all assholes–except one. So, she married him.
With her standard trio (Anderson East on guitar) as backup, her set seemed more expansive, with an unhurried sense of security–knowing who she is and who she’s not, and having complete faith in her talent.
The real surprise did not come until a half-dozen songs into the set. When she took off her jacket to play the piano, she noted her tummy bulge was, in fact, a five-month pregnancy.
“Waiting on June” was–again–the show-stopper. It’s most often the last song of her set but, last night, her last song was “I Saw the Light,” which brought this urban audience to its feet. There’s nothing like that song to make folks feel like they’ve felt a strong breeze from the South.
The other side of being seated with strangers is that some can be strange(rs). While chatting about growing up, we welcomed another couple to the table. Not only were we ignored, they ignored each other. Just sat there, saying nothing and really not watching the performance. They were gone before the house lights went up. Go figure.
Williams is touring till August, then taking some time off. So catch her now.
Photographs by Amos Perrine