Sunday, March 7, 2010
Brooks Williams w/Lisa Bigwood @ The Iron Horse, March 7th, 2010
My oldest favorite, Brooks Williams, played the Iron Horse last night. Unlike his previous Iron Horse appearance, it was a solo gig. Just Brooks alone on stage, switching off between two guitars. It was a CD release party for his new album, Baby-O. I'd just heard the album for the first time the day before the show, and it's a real good one, bluesy and finely picked, and including songs from Son House and Mississippi John Hurt, not to mention Cole Porter's "I Got It Bad, and That Ain't Good."
I knew I was in for a treat the moment I walked into the 'Horse. I glanced over to the stage as I walked in to see a woman who I assumed was the opening act, tweaking her guitar, and accompanied by none other than Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry. These folks seem to turn up unannounced at a lot at Pioneer Valley gigs. I took my seat up close to the stage, fantasizing about the Jim Henry-Brooks Williams jam that wound up not happening.
Now, about that opening act....I had never heard of Lisa Bigwood before, but after her performance Sunday evening, I'm pretty sure I'd seek her out again. She began with a haunting, hypnotic song about a down-and-outer called "The Ballad of Charlie Asher" that had the half-full Iron Horse in the palm of her hand. She played for a little over 30 minutes, half of which included Tracy and Jim, sitting in on fiddle and guitar respectively, along with some harmonies. They were quiet in between songs, letting Lisa Bigwood shine, as was only appropriate. She talked a lot in between songs, mostly about one of two topics: how incredibly lucky she's been in life, and how she talks too much in between songs. A bit less of that would have been nice. Her songs and picking are too good; I wanted to hear more of them.
Brooks took the stage at around 7:45, maybe 10 or 15 fifteen minutes after the opening act left. His set was focused on material from the new album, and he opened with a Son House tune from it, "Grinning in Your Face." He also did several songs from The Time I Spend With You (2008) and Blues and Ballads (2006), but nothing from any of the earlier recordings.
It was a typical performance from the great man, full of amazing guitar playing, and a voice that keeps getting better as the man's gotten older. He used to sound a bit like James Taylor, and there's still some of that mellow sound there, but there's a bit of throatiness there now too. Some grit that you didn't really hear on the albums he did for Green Linnet during the 1990s. And his guitar playing is a marvel. Watching him playing impossible-looking stuff, a big grin all over his face, I thought of Richard Thompson, only to realize, the moment I thought of him, that I preferred Brooks. Thompson is an edgier songwriter, to be sure, but Brooks' guitar-playing is every bit as accomplished and, I believe, more tasteful.
A few songs in, he asked for requests. Someone asked for "Drowsy Bee," an instrumental which I don't think I've ever heard him play. He laughed incredulously at that request, explaining that he'd forgotten how to play it and that it was a song so complicated that he couldn't believe he'd written it. He agreed to other requests, including "Mercy Illinois" and "Weary of the Moon," but he actually never got to them. I wasn't disappointed. The man has too many great songs to get to. Here's a complete list of what he played:
1. Grinning in Your Face
2. Moon on Down
3. Statesboro Blues
4. Belfast Blues
5. Shady Grove
6. 61 Highway
7. Amazing Grace
8. Walk You Off My Mind
10. Last Chance Love
11. The Time I Spend with You
12. Louis Collins
13. Trouble in Mind
14. Rich Tonight
15. I Got it Bad and that Ain't Good
16. Frank Delandry
17. Sugar Sweet
E: instrumental whose title I don't know
On my way out of the Iron Horse, I stopped to chat with him. He remembered me and, after he told me that "we go way back, don't we?" I reminded him that I'd first seen him at a young writers' conference in Vermont back in the spring of 1994. He laughed and shook his head in amazement and thanked me for following him and the music for all these years. It was my pleasure, I told him.
I put Brooks on the short list of artists who I'll always go out of my way to see, and I can hardly wait for the next time.