Joy Williams - Islington Assembly Hall
So, you're one half of a successful roots rock duo; you get sterling reviews, sell records, play great, fiery live shows, and then halfway through a tour tools are downed and the duo are never seen together again. Some cryptic press releases are followed by an unexpected record full of potentially cryptic references to the split. Said record wins a Grammy and your former partner - musical, obviously - neglects to mention you when collecting the award. Awkward. That's a potted history of Joy Williams' last couple of years.
Before The Civil Wars Williams was a singer of Christian music, so there's a sense of intrigue over what form her career will take prior to her return to the London stage. The Islington Assembly Hall is one of just three dates announced so far and what occupies interest the most is how she'll fare without the harmonies of John Paul White and his guitar wielding contrast to her soaring vocals. The last show the duo played together was also in London. As Williams mentions during a teary and mildly therapeutic break a few songs in, that was before “things rapidly changed”.
Debuting her new output to a smallish crowd, this is the first public chance to hear the direction she's taking. And on this evidence it could prove divisive. A sparsely decorated stage betrays the simple, yet outstandingly effective, set that positions Williams out front alone. Her band are hidden behind multiple projection screens; noticible by its absence is anything resembling a guitar. The staging amplifies the enormous sense of drama that the Nashville resident gives her new music and the Hall is the perfect venue for the performance, heightening the spectacle.
But it’s really all about the music tonight. Apart from a “reimagining” of ‘The One Who Got Away’ and ‘Dust To Dust’, and a cover of Duran Duran’s ‘Ordinary World’, it’s all about Venus, Williams’ upcoming solo album. The first thing to note is that it’s good, very good; second though is that it most definitely isn't the Civil Wars. The thumping drum beat of opener of the album's title track is a barometer for what’s to come.
With much in common to a Scandinavian electro-folker, or London Grammar with higher pitched vocals, the set is heavy on synthesizers and skittish drum beats. We’re clearly a long way from Kansas. The mood in the room is flush with positive energy, from both crowd and performer, and with Williams in excellent voice, the serene feel to the show is a long way from the tribulations of her last visit to London. Musically then this is a successful new start, but the whispers about the demise of Civil Wars will continue as long as the ex-members continue to pussyfoot around the matter.
Photo by Andy Barron