As with “Kashmir’s Corn” in the starlight of 4 a.m., Victoria Williams nourished her fans with homely kernels, familiar and essential as the horse’s own. The surroundings were not the desert night, but rather the spiffy tiers and rolled banquettes, the mirrored ball and carpeted aisles of the 750-capacity Park West in the heart of Chicago’s near north yuppie warren, Lincoln Park.
While waitresses in long skirts carried call brands over ice, Williams held forth in her soft worn jeans and plain T-shirt. Her dark thick hair fell simply over her shoulders and arms as she picked up her guitar, her banjo, harmonica, finger piano and a drum of indeterminate ethnicity with a leather-headed stick. Periodically she moved to the piano, bumping Tim Ray to his keyboards. Mostly, she sat flanked in a stagefront line by guitarist-bassist-husband Mark Olson and fiddler Mike “Razz” Russell seated to her left, and, guitarist-cellist-vibraphone player Joey Burns to her right. John Convertino, Burns’ partner in Calexico, played drums at stage rear, with Jon Birdsong beside him on trumpet, cornet and assorted percussion.
Following Williams’ opening “Let It Be So” and “Kashmir’s Corn” from her new disc Musings Of A Creek Dipper, the audience warmly cheered Olson’s voice, not heard live by most fans present since his last Jayhawks show in Chicago. He sang “Hummingbird” from the couple’s homemade, mostly mail-order CD, The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, Williams’ trademark trill occasionally evoking the flutter of little wings. Of the CD, Olson remarked to laughter and applause, “Thanks for getting it, folks. We filled some orders to Chicago.”
After “Periwinkle Sky” and “Allergic Boy” from Musings came another Olson-led Harmony Ridge song, “Valentine King”. Then Williams played what she called a Chicago-style intro to her “Last Word” blues. The song prompted her to muse that perhaps people like to be duped. “I think maybe it’s the large monopolies running everything that’s the problem — children killing children, the president…and all the books!” Someone in the audience apparently made a reference to small business and Williams enthusiastically concurred: “Yeah! Small business. Homemade things.”
For all of that, the antidote was the Eden Ahbez tune “Nature Boy” (covered on Musings), followed by responses to requests for earlier material, including crowd favorites “Century Plant” and “You R Loved” from Williams’ 1994 release Loose. Mixed with the older songs were Olson’s “Eyes Are The Window” from the Harmony Ridge CD, a wonderfully piano-jazzy “I’m Old Fashioned”, and a solo from pianist/keyboardist Ray’s own CD, during which Williams and the band took an offstage break.
When an audience member shouted, “I like you,” the band gamely improvised around Williams’ rendition of the Julie Miller song by that name. Williams had sung backing vocals on the song for Miller’s 1994 release, Invisible Girl. Her lyric ran as far as “I like you. You are the best you I ever knew…” before the whole thing withered.
By the last song, the aptly chosen, “Train Song (Demise Of The Caboose)”, twenty fans had abandoned their cabaret seating to sit cross-legged in front of the stage. Two couples two-stepped and fox-trotted on the right; three fans loped and spun off to the left. By mutual consent, the players left the stage, returning moments later to the sustained applause of a standing ovation. Williams provided an encore of “Grandpa In The Cornpatch”, followed by a closing hymn, Don Heffington’s “Psalms” from Loose.
Sitting in the vestibule after the show, surrounded by fans with just-bought CDs and pens waiting quietly for her autograph, Williams listened intently to a man whose body seemed to betray him, bent and hard to control. Speaking through a stifled howl, he expressed his admiration so affectingly that Victoria hugged him and started to cry. The two held on for a while as the clutch of waiting fans dabbed their eyes. As he left the crowd and leaned into the door, the fan offered this benediction: “One last time”, he hollered out, “VIC-TOR-I-A”.