Apil 7, 1998
Robin and Linda Williams
Devil Of A Dream
Sugar Hill Records
"The Williamses, Their Fine Group present one fine show"
URBANA __ Folk singers Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group visited the Tryon Festival Theater at the Krannert Center on Friday evening, for what turned out to be a fine performance.
The Williamses are favorites of Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" radio show. Given their popularity on NPR, one might expect the group to subject us to rather affected self- consciously "old-time" music with a forced down-hominess well suited to folk music for the cultural elite.
Fortunately, this was not at all the case. Robin and Linda Williams, along with Jim Watson on bass and Kevin Maul on dobro, gave us the real McCoy. Theirs is a tight, well-rehearsed band of first-rate musicians; together they produce polished music and sweet vocal harmonies with just enough of a rough edge to be convincingly "Americana." Combine this with lyrics that are by turns intelligently sardonic and profoundly touching, add a little infectious humor between songs, and you have a recipe for an entertaining evening.
At the core of the band's sound are the tight vocal harmonies of Robin and Linda Williams. The husband and wife team have been singing together for 25 years, and their experience shows. Both have good and distinctive solo voices, and in harmony they manage to blend together without sacrificing their individuality. Their guitar playing is equally complimentary. Robin most often provides bluegrass style licks and fills over Linda's solid rhythm parts, although Linda took the spotlight on- a couple of tunes with fine clawhammer style banjo solos.
The group is rounded out with a solid foundation laid by the bass lines of Jim Watson, who also adds a distinct, rather nasal vocal twang in the three part sections, and by the soulful fills and solos on the dobro and Hawaiian guitar played by Kevin Maul. Maul also filled out the vocal harmonies by singing bass in a few four-part arrangements.
Their Fine Group covers a range of Americana styles, from cowboy jazz and driving bluegrass to Appalachian folk and old- time gospel. Despite the consistently good playing, some of the best moments of the evening came with their stirring a capella renditions of gospel and folk songs. The four part "Sinner Man" was chilling and inspired. The three-part "Sinner's Hymn," with Watson singing lead, was rousing and full of surprising turns. The two-part Appalachian folk song "Across the Blue Mountains" was both gritty and tender.
In listening to their original lyrics, one can understand Keillor's affinity for Robin and Linda Williams. In singing about family traditions and small town life they evoke the same kind of wistful nostalgia_even among those from dysfunctional families living in big cities_ that characterizes much of Keillor's Lake Wobegon reminisces. The slightly corny humor and the wry look at the contemporary American culture is also present in the Williams's songs. "Traffic Light," which was recently featured on NPR's "Car Talk" radio show, features the catch line "I hate that traffic light, I run it every chance I get," while "Men with Guns" is a more serious indictment of the modern militia movement.
It is also nice to see a husband and wife team who so obviously enjoy working together, and who are so entirely at ease with one another and with their audience. The relaxed intimacy of "Together All Alone" and "The Green Summertime" underscored the sincerity of the singers as they bantered with each other and with the audience between songs.
When Robin posed the question "If a man is alone in the forest, and he speaks, and no woman is there to hear him ... is he still wrong?" you knew that Linda was taking it all in stride.
Bass player Jim Watson added a lot to the between-song banter, with his tongue-in-cheek, snake-oil salesman merchandising of the band's CDs, tapes and assorted paraphernalia. Kevin Maul seemed the most serious, or perhaps just the shyest of the lot. What he lacked in humor he made up for in a fine and flashy ragtime solo on the dobro called the "Panhandle Rag."
Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group are just that _a fine band of musicians and entertainers. On Friday they left the audience with a healthy respect for old-time American music, a confidence that the old traditions are in good hands these days, ant a sort of warm nostalgia that makes one want to go look up some old "Andy Griffith" shows on cable.
__ TIM BARNES