By Jonathan Takiff
Daily News Staff Writer
VICTORIA WILLIAMS PLUS MARK OLSON, 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Painted Bride
Center, 230 Vine St. Tickets: $22.50. Info: 215-925-9914.
Victoria Williams, the talent headlining tomorrow at the Painted Bride, is definitely an old soul in a young body, and a unique taste definitely worth sampling.
Her fragile, wispy, Louisiana drawl sounds like something you might hear coming out of a windup Victrola. And while the artist deploys modernistic electric guitars and keyboards, soulful horns and sophisticated string arrangements, her original songs have a quaint, lullaby elegance and country-tinged lyricism that evokes simpler times and imagery. Think the classic work of The Band. Or maybe, Hoagy Carmichael.
On her wonderful new album "Water To Drink," Williams puts on "Grandma's Hat Pin" and starts thinking like her relative. She celebrates the joys of living with wide-eyed wonder in "Lagniappe," rocks a crying child to sleep with "Light The Lamp Freddie" and "doobie doos" around the world with a lame and half blind creature named "Claude" - a dog, perhaps? Her alter ego? "Joy of Love," another fave with hubby Mark Olson on harmonizing vocals, sounds like a classic Shaker hymn.
Truth is, more people have heard of Williams or been exposed to her material secondhand than have actually heard the woman herself. Seven years ago, she was the subject of a pioneering tribute album "Sweet Relief," put together by talents such as Pearl Jam, Soul Asylum, Lucinda Williams and Lou Reed to showcase Williams' charming material and help out with steep medical bills she faced in her fight against multiple sclerosis. With Eddie Vedder's commanding voice up front instead of Williams gurgly pipes, the Pearl Jam performance of "Crazy Mary" alone got more radio play than she's ever won, total, in her five-album career.
But "Water To Drink" is definitely her most approachable and listener-friendly set, Williams agrees with a girlish giggle in a recent phone interview. "Listening to some of my earlier albums, I realized I had such an uncontrollable vibrato. This thing would just go cwazy."
On the new set, she sings in a lower key, which toned down "the screechiness which is some people's abhorrence." And she threw in some charming reads of standards - including the bossa nova-flavored title track and the classic romantic ballads "Young at Heart" and "Until The Real Thing Comes Along" - which connect her stylistically to jazz talents like Billie Holiday and Astrid Gilberto, to a tradition of singers with "little girl blue" voices.
"I've always had this old-timey voice," Williams acknowledges. "Doing standards, people can understand my voice better. It's a lot to deal with when you're doing original material."
Williams says her health is "pretty good. I'm on antibiotics right now for a cold, besides getting a shot every day for MS. I'm just gonna do the best I can."
She's very proud that the Sweet Relief charity started in her honor has prospered and greatly expanded its efforts, doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to help "older musicians with living expenses and musicians of all ages with medical or medical related expenses. They just did another album for Vic Chesnutt, and there's a new one they're fixing to do of Sly Stone songs. Keep your eyes open."
While hubby Olson reportedly quit The Jayhawks to stay home and care for Williams, she laughs that he didn't have much time to work on her new album, cut with a stellar backing crew at their agricultural ranch in Joshua Tree, Calif. "Mark was off working with autistic children at the time. Then when mine was done, he went off and made his own album in L.A."
Olson is now out on tour with Williams, however. He sits in with her chamber-folk/rock septet and also opens the show with his own, like-minded group, The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers.
So get there on time for an artful, intriguing night of music.