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JOY WILLIAMS RAISES THE ROOF AT BASEMENT

Returning to the scene of the crime is always a dangerous proposition; doubly so, when it’s Nashville’s cave-like Basement, where in 2011, an unlikely duo upended the record business with the stark, acoustic Barton Hollow. That launch saw The Civil Wars crack radio wide open; their genre-defying debut went on to win Grammys for Best Folk Album and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group. But all that paled Wednesday night as the crystalline-voiced Joy Williams delivered a triumphantly unadorned sneak peak of this May’s Front Porch (sensibility/Thirty Tigers).

Introduced by Milk Carton Kid/Porch producer Ken Pattengale, Williams broke out an evocative handful of songs that matched her clear, at times dusky alto with mountain/bluegrass-instrumentation. Wearing a flared ’40s style black dress with small white buttons descending straight down from her clavicle, the songwriter shined as she leaned into the bent vocal harmony ’n’ fiddle reel  “When Creation Was Young.”

Eyes blazing, Williams warmly acknowledged friends in the room, the people who’d helped forge Front Porch from pieces of her life. Acoustic guitarist Anthony DeCosta, upright bassist Sam Howard and wunderkind fiddler/multi-instrumentalist Wilhelmina Frankzerda supplied a precision to match the euphoria and the spaciousness of the songs. Their charged chemistry exponentiated what made The Civil Wars so intriguing.

Confessing to writing the anguished “The Trouble With Wanting” in the wee hours after girl talk and a bit of red wine with Natalie Hemby, Williams and her the minimalist threesome’s slice of torchalachia hung in the air with angst and acapella chorus harmonies. Equal parts haunted and haunting, Williams demonstrated to the crowd that her gift for touching those plangent places has grown. Like Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” her “Wanting” reckons with the emptiness that follows love withdrawn.

Just as importantly, her depth and emotional nuance have matured into something comforting as well. Speaking of returning to where she truly feels at home, she confessed to telling co-writer Liz Rose, “Sonically, I wanted something that sounds like it could be played on my front porch” as the title track’s genesis.

The song, which Williams said would be available “at midnight tonight,” bookends John Prine’s consoling “Summer’s End” for its empathy and invitation of refuge to the displaced. Wheezing with the ache of time spent and life grown heavy, the fiddle weeps and whispered vocals beckon the listener to come home.

With NPR’s pop critic Ann Powers following the six-song mini-set with a brief interview, audience members including Jay Liepis, Thirty Tigers Nancy Quinn, Red Light’s Tom Lord, Tom Becci and the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Peter Cooper heard how a powerful album was born. Beyond discussing the recording and writing process, the woman who’d just offered a delicate “When Does a Heart Move On,” discussed the challenges and triumphs of marriage as a counterbalance and source of inspiration. Heady stuff, yet Williams places it well within the listener’s grasp.

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