Tonight, the Opelousas-born folkie brings a much-needed world view to Chickie Wah Wah.
Victoria Williams has probably always been an acquired taste. Critic Robert Christgau gave three of her first four albums a B+, A- and A-, but his embrace of her talent was guarded. “Her roots are in Cajunland, so naturally she sings like a cross between Dolly Parton and Yoko Ono. If you fear art damage, I cannot tell a lie, so maybe you'll believe me when I add that it's tolerable,” he wrote in his review of her 1987 debut Happy Come Home.
“Whimsy's not a pose or an aesthetic decision with this woman, it's who she is, and there's no use blaming her for it. Instead, gauge how far you can tolerate her quirks and proceed accordingly, because she's finally transformed her folksy positivism into a worldview worthy of her talent--or maybe honed her talent into a winning vehicle for her worldview,” he wrote in his review of 1994’s Loose, and he wrote of 1998’s Memories of a Creekdipper, “There's eccentric and then there's loopy, and this fragile, well-named follow-up is loopy.”
Early on, writers were suspicious that Williams’ naïve, rural point of view and unusually mannered voice was a pose--a suspicion fueled by her string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, someone fighting modernity with all the tools the days of yore offer him. Christgau clearly wrestled with that, even as he championed her albums. He wasn’t alone in his struggle or admiration for her songs. The Sweet Relief Foundation was formed to help Williams when she was diagnosed with MS and, like so many musicians, didn’t have health insurance. The fund-raising album, Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams, featured her songs covered by Soul Asylum, Pearl Jam, Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams and more.
Tonight Williams will play Chickie Wah Wah. Last night, she played a house concert and if anything, time has made her homespun, hippie-inflected point of view easier to connect to because there’s no longer any suspicion that it’s an act. She’s past the age when she might choose an oppositional relationship to the dominant music community, and she’s had this musical voice for so long that it’s clearly who she is.
If anything, time has made her even more herself. When she played The Howlin’ Wolf in 2002, her show was as conventional as an idiosyncratic artist’s could be; last night, maybe it was the intimacy of someone's living room, but she changed the setlist on the fly, regardless of its impact on the physical set-up and the time it would take to make mechanical adjustments. That in-the-moment quality also made her the only person who should be allowed to sing “What a Wonderful World,” as her vocal reflected not only a moment of wonder, but her love for that wonder. By singing from that place, she was herself wonderful, letting the voice of her inner eight-year-old, the woman she is today, and the people she’s been throughout her life all have exhilarating moments in the song.
Hearing Williams today outside the context of her contemporaries and the rock ’n’ roll marketplace, it’s easier to settle into the quotidian lyrical world she inhabits, one where the elemental wisdom that shows up in children's literature manifests itself. One with small towns, dogs, birds and fields being planted, and all are connected just as surely and intangibly as the people she sings about in the first verse of “You R Loved”:
Man takes his cane to a waterfall
He has a vision, starts talking baby talk
Understood by a girl in Peru
That sympathetic, compassionate world view seemed right on time last night.