Graded on a Curve:
Victoria Williams
& the Loose Band,
Town Hall 1995

In 1993 Victoria Williams gained a wide audience through Sweet Relief, a star-studded covers disc intended to aid in paying her mounting medical bills related to multiple sclerosis. In ’94 she hooked up with a gaggle of high-profile help to cut Loose, which stands as her best-known studio album, and a year later she took the songs out on tour with the Loose Band. Recordings were made, and earlier in 2017 Fire Records put Town Hall 1995 on vinyl for Record Store Day. Copies of the LP are still available, and on July 28 it’s out on compact disc and digital.

Like most people, I guess, I passed on checking out Victoria Williams’ debut Happy Come Home when it was released by Geffen in 1987, and did the same when Swing the Statue! trickled into store racks via an ailing Rough Trade in 1990; the label’s (temporary) demise through bankruptcy insured a lack of promotion when the artist really could’ve used it, but through a variety of activities (playing with Giant Sand, acting in Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) she continued plugging away into the early ’90s, prior to the diagnosis of MS delivering a severe setback.

Today, it’s common knowledge that Williams triumphed over the disorder, but upon Sweet Relief’s emergence in 1993 matters weren’t so certain. Celeb benefits regularly ooze a self-satisfaction that can breed a lack of urgency and listener cynicism, but the motivation behind Sweet Relief felt right, even if the performers assembled, which included alternative heavyweights Pearl Jam, Soul Asylum, and Evan Dando, varying strains of alt-country in Lucinda Williams, Giant Sand, and The Jayhawks, and the aging cool of Lou Reed, ranged in one’s personal esteem.

This fact only reinforces the worth of Williams’ songwriting, which flowered even further on her breakthrough album Loose; released by Mammoth in the afterglow of Sweet Relief, the label also rescued Swing the Statue! from consumer purgatory during the same period. As stated above, akin to the almost ludicrous lineup producer Anton Fier assembled for her debut, Loose is loaded with guests; amongst a mess of session cats, there’s half of R.E.M., Dave Pirner, the Tower of Power Horns, Rose Stone, and arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, who also assisted on her debut.

All this assistance results in an affair that’s only occasionally ornate, and yet as produced by Paul Fox, it’s consistently a byproduct of the studio; minus a substantial budget, replicating its scale on tour would’ve been an impossibility, so Williams did the opposite, grabbing three of Loose’s key players in guitarist Andy Williams, keyboardist Don Heffington, and drummer Tim Ray, adding bassist Joey Burns (then of Giant Sand and late of Calexico) and David Mansfield on mandolin, strings, and pedal steel, and then hit the road.

Despite the unusual timbre of her singing voice (something she shares with the beneficiary of Sweet Relief II, the late Vic Chesnutt), Williams’ early output exuded an accessible nature enhanced by its studio settings, but Town Hall 1995 documents a comfortable transition to a scaled-down live environment, featuring seven from Loose, three each from Happy Come Home and Swing the Statue!, and a pair of covers.

The set commences with Loose’s opener “Century Tree.” The prettiness of Williams’ voice is deepened by Mansfield’s mandolin as the rhythm section adds gusto, and the song’s pop sophistication sits in fine balance with the folk-country instrumentation. The addition of Doug Wieselman’s clarinet and Mansfield’s viola on “Harry Went to Heaven” nicely complicates the recipe, going beyond the jazzy into a Tin Pan Alley atmosphere reflecting her prior association with Parks.

Mansfield’s pedal steel on “You R Loved” swaps in an alt-country vibe for the studio version’s Muscle Shoals action, though Andy Williams’ solo is even bolder here. “Main Road” provides the first dip into Happy Come Home; lacking Parks’ string arrangement and (presumably) his accordion, through just piano, vocal, and percussion the studio version’s essence is retained.

Due to the sound of her voice and its accompanying studio lushness, Williams was sometimes at risk of succumbing to preciousness, but Town Hall’s small group situation pulls her farther away from that potential pitfall, helping “Polish Those Shoes” to go down easy. It leads into one of her most beloved compositions (thanks in part to Pearl Jam’s cover), “Crazy Mary” full-bodied and hitting a rocking peak in the set’s first half. The brief “Lights,” the second of Happy Come Home’s selections, settles things down with the focus on voice and mandolin.

The whole evening thrives on a heightened sense of intimacy through a crack band with Williams as its leader; she’s particularly Chesnutt-like on the unwinding narrative of “Hitchhikers’ Smile,” and the playing momentarily skirts the border of psychedelic. With “Vieux Amis” (from Swing the Statue!), the gears shift into Cajun country, while “Happy to Have Known Pappy” exudes an attractive eccentricity mildly reminiscent of ’60s folk-rock’s good-time qualities before hitting a meditative conclusion.

The Town Hall of the title is in New York City, so Lou Reed didn’t have far to travel to lead a cover of “Sweet Jane.” It’s not the best version of the song I’ve heard, but it’s real fucking far from the worst, mainly because Lou is engaged, if bossy (“into the mic, Vic.” Sheesh!). Victoria seems gassed that he’s there, and the deftness of the instrumentation (notably Heffington’s touches of organ) raises it beyond pickup band territory.

From there, the set hits the homestretch. A smattering of applause is audible at the start of “Summer of Drugs,” surely due to its opening Soul Asylum cover on Sweet Relief, and the version here raises the volume as it hits the rootsy side of the ’90s Modern Rock zone. That might not read as okay, but rest assured, in the midst of 2017, it sounds more than satisfactory, and “Fryin’ Pan”’s anthemic country-folk-pop is even better. “Boogie Man” is the sort of polished swamp-pop that reinforces Williams’ origins in the ’80s.

A closing cover of “Over the Rainbow” is aided by the mouth-trombone of her road manager “The Mangler.” It ends the evening on a note of warm eccentricity. Bigtime Williams lovers likely realize this is the second live release from this tour, but the amount of overlap with ’95’s This Moment in Toronto with the Loose Band reinforces that the set list varied every night, and the performance on Town Hall 1995 is strong enough to transcend being a souvenir for heavy-duty fans.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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