In black leather pants, boots and the ever-present cowboy hat, Williams took over the stage looking every bit the casual icon, her natural presence filling the room with anticipation. Setting the mood with heartbreak from the get-go, she opened with "Metal Firecracker" (which pleads: "Don't tell anybody's secrets"), followed by the nostalgic title track of her now-classic last album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Williams paused at this point to introduce the band members, the sound guys, the stagehands, and even the lighting designer--ensuring that credit for the evening's performance was appropriately shared. All modesty aside, though, the night belonged to Williams broken-hearted voice and haunting lyrics.
The songs were delivered with the exact mournful inflections heard in her recordings. "Blue," from her new album, Essence, silenced the entire crowd with its moody acceptance of personal tragedies, while "Lonely Girls" nearly broke my heart: "Heavy blankets cover lonely girls ... have pretty hairdos ... wear sparkly rhinestones ... lonely girls, lonely girls, lonely girls."
There were several stompin' numbers, too. "(You took my) Joy" got the lengthy treatment with bluesy riffs, slide guitar and keyboards, building to an ass-kicking climax that elicited uproarious applause. "Yeah, you're right" Williams said, laughing into the microphone. After plumbing the dashed memory depths of "2 Kool 2 Be Forgotten" and the as-yet-unreleased "Words Fall," she introduced "Drunken Angel" as a song she'd written for a musician friend who was "shot and killed in a senseless argument." Even on the heavily layered blues rock ditty "Can't Let Go," her lyrical message remained constant: "It's over, I know it, but I can't let go."
Then it was back to telling her real story--that of a no-nonsense leading lady with a disillusioned desire to be taken care of--singing (in the title track to Essence) "Kiss me hard and make me wonder who's in charge."
For the first encore, Williams played "Concrete and Barbed Wire" and the stunningly eloquent anti-ballad, "[Go on back to] Greenville" (there were noticeable sniffles in the room after that one), ending with a new song that alluded yet again to relationship pitfalls: "We fight like cats and dogs but we can make it right, baby--I'll let you be the boss ... all I wanna do, boy, is just be your girl." With her fans begging for more, Williams returned to cap off the evening with "I Envy the Wind," the poetic verses all sun-on-skin and rain-soaked shirts--metaphors for the highs and lows of romance.
With numerous awards, five-star reviews, and sold-out shows, Williams has finally received the attention she deserves; yet her recent successes haven't changed her emotional, storytelling style and passionate take on the yearnings of lost love. She continues to work from within, sharing with her listeners a private loneliness that breaches boundaries and remains familiar in its honesty. She may not have found that one love that weathers the storms, but she has found fans who'll help her hold up the umbrella.
The Pernice Brothers
Wednesday, Nov. 14
Go! Room 4, Carrboro
Here's the thing. Unless you're Emerson, Lake and Palmer and you're the hottest act since Three Dog Night and your label fronted you a couple mil before the start of the tour, you probably can't afford to bring, like, a 58-piece orchestra out on the road with you. Which sucks when your records are simply dripping with violins and cellos.Alas, the Massachusetts band Pernice Brothers--admittedly a world away from Emerson, Lake and Palmer and "financed" by the humble indie Ashmont Records--arrived at Carrboro's Go! Room 4 last Wednesday night sans the strings that have starred on their two phenomenal records.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss the orchestra swells in the opening number, "Working Girls (Sunlight Shines)," the soaring string solo in "Bryte Side" or the pluck of the harp in "Crestfallen." But once the band warmed up and really started to find itself, I forgot about the orchestra altogether. Leader Joe Pernice, who some years back escaped the alt-country straitjacket of the Scud Mountain Boys, plays pop music now. His new record, The World Won't End (Ashmont), is chock full of heartfelt songs soaked in pain and beauty. At Go! Studios, he sang with a desperate urgency, projecting lyrical images that bordered on poetry. No surprise given the fact that Pernice owns a master's in creative writing and just published his own book of verse.
"Our Time Has Passed" was a gorgeous slice of melancholy that likened a truncated romance to "a flash of radiation that leaves the buildings where they stand." "She Heightened Everything" offered the ominous chorus, "Keep loving me to death." "Let That Show" sounded like the confessions of a reformed megalomaniac--or perhaps a rock singer who started believing his own press. "Was a time when I thought I could talk down to all my friends," he lamented, stretching the "i" in "time" for effect.
Pernice addressed the plight of working stiffs in several songs. "Don't let me disappear inside this monkey suit I'm wearing," he warned in "Monkey Suit." During "Working Girls," he empathized with a temp worker who "summered every winter through a calendar from paradise" while "contemplating suicide or a graduate degree."
The show built up from a coffeehouse hush to an all-out jam in the space of about 30 minutes. Guitarist Peyton Pinkerton led the crescendo, showing a delicate touch on a couple early ballads and later launching into tasteful solos that teetered on the brink of classic rock--or dare I say alt-country?--while former JALE bassist Laura Stein provided sweet, breathy vocals and understated keyboard.
Rumors of Pernice's dour nature turned out to be unfounded. This is, after all, a guy who once wrote a song about someone killing himself in a garage. His "I hate my life" lyric--from the uncheerily named Chappaquiddick Skyline side project--has become a slogan printed on Pernice Brothers stickers. Slouched over the microphone stand, he delivered his lyrics with a taut face, enunciating almost to the point of physical discomfort. Despite all that, the show offered no shortage of smiles and wisecracks, along with an abundance of uptempo, even bouncy material.
As if to drive the point home, Pernice Brothers tore though "Clear Spot" and "7:30"--the latter replete with Motown beat, buh-buh gang chorus and arena-rock ending--before closing with the hard-driving "Flaming Wreck." Delicate angst and quiet tension had yielded to noisy catharsis.
Perhaps sensing some peak had been reached, the band opted for two hushed encores--the sensitive-'70s nod "Shaken Baby" and a beautifully decelerated version of the Pernice gem "Wait to Stop." Afterward, some of us stuck around on a hunch that the orchestra might show up.