Often at concerts the venue is mostly empty when the opening act begins and what crowd there is seems disinterested. At the Taft Theatre last night, however, most everyone who was coming had taken their seats by the time Holly Williams walked out on stage—and the opening chords of her first song, “Drinkin’,” brought cheers of recognition.
Armed only with her acoustic guitar, another acoustic, and an upright bass (that and the voices of the people playing), Holly delivered a strong eight-song set that confirmed her reputation as a refreshingly unvarnished and unaffected country singer boasting a rich, soulful voice that’s equal parts painful and sensual and that exudes a “been-there” quality. She knows how to write songs—“Drinkin’,” “Railroads,” “The Highway,” and “Waiting on June” were definite highlights—and she also knows how to sing John Prine, as the sole cover of the night made clear. Another thing you don’t associate with opening acts—good clean sound—helped ensure that this was an opening act people would remember. Incidentally, Holly is the granddaughter of Hank Williams, daughter of Hank Jr., and half-sister to Hank III. We call that “lineage” back where I come from.
The headliner was Jason Isbell, who I had seen recently on Austin City Limits. His latest record, Southeastern, is a more subdued affair than some previous efforts, and, rightly or wrongly, his performance on the television show seemed flat to me. Last night at the Taft I got it, though. It helped that the sound was fantastic—the best I’ve heard at the Taft. Sitting there 13th row dead center, I was so impressed that I ended up complimenting the sound man on the way out. The mix brought out the subtleties as well the dynamics of a band that was locked in from the first note. Aside from the drummer, everyone stood even with Jason (as opposed to the norm, where everyone’s behind the lead singer), which seemed to suggest that this was a band as opposed to a solo artist backed by accompanying musicians. Drummer Chad Gamble killed it, btw—laying a rock-solid foundation but never resembling a metronome, which can make for a long night of listening. This was a Monday night and the day after the Super Bowl, but plenty of beer and mixed drunks were sold and consumed by a crowd that between songs wished Jason happy birthday so many times the show began to feel like a birthday party.
I filmed Holly Williams singing John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” and here ‘s the video. (Please note that the music doesn’t start until about 1:20 in, so I recommend jumping there right off the bat.)