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Jack Williams
September 15, 2000
House Concert: Cedar Stage Productions
Mt. Sinai, NY

I was not familiar with the music of Jack Williams before this concert. Ralph DiGennaro, Music Matters writer and presenter of this concert had fallen head over heals for him since hearing his first two albums. I listened to Across the Winterline in the car on the way to the concert and immediately went from being curious about my colleague’s obsession for this performer to a certainty that this was going to be an outstanding concert. I heard an extraordinary guitar player of eclectic influences and a voice with a roadmap of dues paying miles on it. The songs, even on first listen, reveal a narrative depth similar to the best southern short stories, but and better yet, the lyrics, melodies and deft picking compliment each other seamlessly. We walked past Williams’ wheels on the way in, another good sign—a van made up to serve as traveling living quarters for an itinerant musician. We sat outside in the cool of a perfect autumn evening on a cedar deck that blends into a beautiful garden.

The show opened with a three-song set by James O’Malley, a seasoned local performer who was joined by a subtly talented harmonica player. He sang a gem of a song about a swampy night jaunt with his brother that turns harrowing. Williams came out and stood in the doorway, clearly enjoying the tune. He was then introduced to an audience who with few exceptions, knew nothing of his music and in many cases little of his genre. It took him less than a song to enrapture the audience. The guitarists in the audience were treated to an up-close view of a man who can make his instrument speak in a variety of musical styles, from intricate classical to sweet jazz, to bluesy rock and roll. He’s a guitarist with at least two or three brains to handle rhythm, base runs, picked chords and melody (I guess that’s four!). The places that are worn through the finish on the guitar have paid the price for his flawless technique. The singing reminds me of Pierce Pettis, with a softness that stretches to a wonderful tension when the emotions of the lyrics run strong.

In the course of the show, Williams lets you know who he is and where he is from. The songs are powerful without explanation, but Williams’ autobiographical elucidation between songs draws one closer to the performer and his songs. We learn that he was an Army brat, moving from town to town—too fast to make lasting friends. His hometown of Columbia, South Carolina is a source of stories and characters. We find that he draws much inspiration from the poetry of James Dickey, among others. It is clear that he loves playing music more than anything in the world as he falls under the spell of his own songs. At the intermission when I asked him about the influences on his diverse guitar styles, he spoke of years of playing in a variety of bands, even blowing some horn in a jazz band. His tastes run from jazz to real rock and country to classical—he urged me to check out Brahms Fifth Symphony.

The evening was a wonderful discovery, not only of an artist, but of the people in his life—his mother, father, the nanny he never properly thanked for being there, the poets and the people of his hometown. Like the troubadours of old, his fame is among those who have been within the sound of his voice. Happily I now number among this select and lucky group. —Mike Devlin

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