Victoria Williams & The Loose Band - Town Hall 1995

by Mark Moody Rating:7 Release Date:2017-07-28

During the late 80’s to mid 90’s heyday of the No Depression/Alt-country era, the movement’s monsters ruled the Earth. Bands like Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks dominated the landscape, but there was also room for quieter more idiosyncratic artists with their own unique voice. Iris Dement comes to mind, but Victoria Williams also fit squarely into that niche. Not only did her folky warble and offbeat lyrical subjects set her apart, she also garnered interest from being the beneficiary of one of the earlier charitable album releases, Sweet Relief, and was the subject of a Jayhawks song to boot. Her first three album releases are all very worthwhile items to seek out, and this release came on the heels of her third album, Loose.

Victoria Williams & The Loose Band Town Hall 1995, is the second live release from the same tour, in fact recorded within a week of the released more than twenty years ago, This Moment: Live in Toronto. Although she has been fairly reclusive over the last decade, it seems odd to release another live album from the same tour and era this far along. The newly released Town Hall album, recorded in New York City, in fact shares seven tracks from the earlier release. Although, there are some differences between the albums in song selection and band composition. The current release benefits from more of her original songs, which play better to me than what would best be categorized as covers of American standards – here there is just one, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. The key players, Andy Williams (the Williams Brothers), Joey Burns (Calexico), and David Mansfield (too many references to mention) remain, while this release adds some horn accompaniment which comes up a negative in most spots. Maybe being in an iconic jazz hall inspired that choice, but ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ in particular is marred by the addition, bringing chuckles from the audience perhaps intentionally but distracting nonetheless.

On the positive, Williams is in fine voice and receives sympathetic harmonies and solid playing from her band. I would also give the overall sound mix a better rating than the earlier released album, with the instruments more up in the mix. The band locks in sonically and vocally on many cuts like ‘You R Loved’, ‘Vieux Amis’, and ‘Fryin Pan’. Other quieter tracks, like ‘Main Road’ and ‘Lights’, benefit from more minimal musical assistance where her unique vocals and images of childhood and local characters come to the forefront. Simple but elegant lines, like “the lights on the city look so good, almost like somebody thought they would”, highlight her simplistic yet evocative lyrical approach. Other highlights include songs maybe popularized more by their covers on Sweet Relief  by Pearl Jam (‘Crazy Mary’) and Soul Asylum (‘Summer of Drugs’), but played to full effect by Williams here, the latter recalling a rebellious youth. The ‘Sweet Jane’ duo here with surprise guest Lou Reed benefits from the band pushing the singers to an inspired version in spite of Reed’s spoken asides and gratuitous compliments from both singers at the end.

On balance, this is a superior release to the Toronto concert recording (maybe the NYC setting was more inspirational) and ultimately benefits from the better song selection and hotter mic on the musicians. More importantly, Town Hall serves as a reminder of a one of a kind voice who flourished for several years and has been heard from too little since.        

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