The crowd — a few dozen enthusiastic listeners gathered inside the Avalon Theatre, a lovely art deco concert hall on the Eastern Shore — was not shy. What was her guitar made of? (“Mostly spalted tamarind . . . It’s actually a fungus.”) How is it tuned? (“D-A-D-F#-A-D.”) When did she learn how to play the guitar flat on her lap? (“I was 14?”) After an especially dizzying song that required Williams to pluck her guitar and a kalimba concurrently, one guy asked, “Do you have two brains?”
Then Williams had a question. Did the song she had just played, “On A Friday Night,” strike the room as happy or sad? The shouted consensus was “happy” and Williams smiled. She explained that she wrote it more than a few years ago, holed up in her freshman dorm room at NYU, feeling friendless and far from home.
That was the real magic trick right there. No matter how nonchalantly she tried to demystify her inventive techniques, there was no getting around the big mystery of music itself — how it can form inside a specific feeling or place only to communicate something totally different someplace else. Williams’s smile didn’t signal her feeling misunderstood so much as her understanding that a single song, or even a single musical gesture, can communicate a multiplicity of ideas.
Williams builds her songs through all kinds of unexpected gestures, but her solo playing isn’t fanciful or show-offy. Instead, it feels intuitive and exploratory, using alien timbres to generate comforting melodies until she cultivates something friendly and strange. She tends to play with her guitar flat on her lap, both hands tapping and smearing notes on the fretboard, or plucking them in unexpected places. Sometimes, she’ll thump the body of the guitar with her palm, or rap it with her knuckles, creating percussive patterns that simultaneously vibrate the strings. Superficial boundaries between rhythm and melody cease to exist.
Where does this music come from? Since she grew up in Woodbridge, Va., many seem itchy to place her in a lineage of regional folk guitar heroes — Elizabeth Cotten, John Fahey, Robbie Basho — but Williams says she doesn’t feel part of any particular tradition. She grew up on Chuck Brown, she likes the new Pink Siifu album, and her deep curiosity about the unheard sounds that might still be hiding inside the acoustic guitar seems contagious to most people within earshot. Last month, after wowing crowds at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, Paste magazine deemed her set “the biggest revelation of the festival.”
One of the biggest wows on Friday night came during “Guitka,” a song that resembled an elegant flamenco flurry, then a daredevilish metal solo, then a tick-tocking trap beat, then a mutated ballad by late-’90s post-emo band Joan of Arc. The music moved delicately, but quickly, and the harder you tried to connect the dots, the faster Williams seemed to be erasing the map.
Still, to call her a guitarist without influences isn’t exactly right. When we quiz musicians about their influences, we expect a tidy list of heroes, but Williams seems to understand the question differently. According to the liner notes of her gorgeous new album, “Urban Driftwood,” her latest songs were influenced by the planet, the pandemic, the economy, the Black Lives Matter movement, the fate of the nation and more. These are calming, contemplative lullabies surfaced from the roiling aura of the times.
But after Williams played “Juvenescence” — a plush, cascading highlight from “Urban Driftwood” inspired by “thousands of young people [who] started to take political action and form their own ideas of how they want the future of our country to look,” as Williams writes in those liner notes — she opened the floor to questions, mostly show-and-tell queries about gear. Here’s the mallet that makes her guitar chime like a dulcimer. Here’s the bow she uses to make it groan like a cello. Here’s a kalimba, an African thumb piano with metal tines that plink like a music box. (A good-hearted Guitar Center employee gave it to her free when he couldn’t find the price tag.)
Placing the kalimba flat on top of her guitar made the conjoined instruments resonate in mysterious ways, and to answer the “two brains” question about what it takes to play them both at the same time, Williams shooed everyone out of her head and pointed to the wooden music machines stacked on her lap. “I think of them as one thing,” she said, making the meaning of all this wordless music suddenly feel explicit. These were songs about convergence, synchronicity, human empathy, social harmony. And they might have been about other things, too.
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