Victoria Williams – Club Congress (Tucson, AZ)
Music writers need to retire the words “quirky,” “endearing” and even “dishabille” from their thesauri. Give it up; Victoria Williams owns them. As always, throughout the first show of a brief, politically inspired tour through “swing states,” Williams sang as though grasping every word from her cranium and hand-tossing it as a gift for us to dangle. And while in another time and place, it would have been the next to last day you could wear white shoes, Williams sported serviceable brown boots laced to the knee, her anti-fashion statement continuing upward with baggy plaid shorts and wrinkled shirt, beneath tousled hair and a smile that would sink a thousand fashion magazines.
A modest crowd turned out for the occasion at Tucson’s substantially upgraded Club Congress. Fortunately, the recent remodeling sacrificed none of the venue’s charm while greatly improving sightlines for fans and logistics for bands. As they do everywhere, Williams and her husband, Mark Olson, made the place feel like we had dropped in for a surprise visit to their back porch.
The hit of the night was the opening number, a song written by Tucson’s own Rainer Ptacek, who before his death of a brain tumor in 1997 had counted the duo among his friends. “Something has gotta be done,” the lyric begins; “you may be the one to do it.” The rest of the song is a litany of personal responsibility: something’s gotta be said, something’s gotta be heard, something’s gotta be sung…and you may be the one. “I’m not talking/About anything more/Than the universe,” goes the refrain. The song, “Something”, as Rainer’s widow Patti Keating noted, “should be a theme song for our time.”
The rest of the set was liberally salted with songs from the recent Political Manifest, an aptly named recording under the pair’s nom de pick, the Creekdippers. The songs were biting, frustrated, occasionally bitter and often, thankfully, humorous expressions of disaffection with the state of things, and of hope that they can get better. To that last notion, Olson offered the gentle counsel of “Walk With Them”: “We should go walk with them/We should go talk with them/We should make it up with them/Now is the time to get it right.”
Williams’ performances were predictably unpredictable. On “Summer Of Drugs”, she lost the song, then lost the band, finally turning to the crowd and asking, “Can I just play any old thing?” Well of course. She set off again and the band picked up after her. Afterward, in case fans were wondering what she had in her mouth, she explained it was a stick of ginseng, and went on to relate its benefits.
Olson took great care to see that she always had the right instrument and that it was in tune, but her guitar amp was unruly for most of the set. “I’m so sorry we have a box that’s not running,” she said. “I love you all so much and I’m so happy to be here!” She used the down time to urge the audience to register to vote. Later she invited the crowd to “sing along on this political protest song!” before she and the band led into a reggaed-up, impossible-to-follow “Kumbayah”.
After a brief huddle, in which Olson apparently said it was time to leave, Williams resisted. “That’s it? Aw, come on!” Someone in the audience shouted “Gram Parsons” so she seized on it, urging “Streets Of Baltimore” from Mark, then singing “In My Hour Of Darkness”. As Mark and the band began loading out after the encore (which included a hot-blues version of “Since I Laid My Burden Down”), Victoria continued to sing and play keyboards, as unwilling as any of us for the night to end.