I listen to Brooks Williams as if he were two accomplished artists: the instrumentalist and the more traditional singer-songwriter. This makes me an unusual listener –- because while his instrumental wizardry is rightly celebrated, for a surprisingly significant portion of his career, Williams has been hailed by most as a folk guitarist who happens to sing once in a while. Even his own website reinforces this perception of Williams as a guitarist first, defining him as a singer-songwriter but front-loading his bio with quotes about his virtuosity as a guitarist, mentions of awards for the same, and a description of the origins of his playing style.
And that's a shame. Williams has always been both an incredible guitarist and a sweet, tuneful singer-songwriter who tends to alternate pure instrumentals with sweet-voiced tunes in recording and performance alike. It just took a change-up to prove it.
To be fair, for most of his career, it was hard to blame those who would dismiss or forget his vocal skills and lyric-craft. His awards and recognition have been almost entirely for his slide blues, and his flat- and finger-picking style. Until the release of 2003 folkpop album Nectar, New England transplant, festival fave and "acoustic guitar god" Williams brought his voice out as just one more instrument – and if it came across as a slightly lesser one, it was only because so little could compete with his fretwork.
Nectar represented a significant shift for Williams. Unlike previous albums, which -- with the exception of Little Lion, his surprisingly diverse instrumental release of 2000 –- tended to contain an even mix of instrumentals and more typical folkfare, Nectar contains no instrumentals at all. Instead, it comes across as a sweet, enjoyable listen grounded in the voice-forward production values of the urban folk and -- dare I say it -- Adult Alternative models.
Nectar brought about a strong reaction from Brooks Williams’ fan base, much of it negative. But none of William's work is easy to dismiss. There's never been anything urban or even easy about his fingerpicking, even as it moves from the foreground to become one component of many in the more fleshed out songs of his produced work. His hands remain light on the strings, bright and loose, regardless of whether he’s going for a more traditional strum pattern or a wizardry that rivals true folk instrumentalist Leo Kottke.
Among his other talents, Williams has a collector's ear for covers, and he finds them all over the musical map, from the deep roots of reggae and jazz to the most sensitive of some pretty obscure blues and folk artists. In every genre, he's rediscovered great but buried songs you haven't heard in years, if you've heard them at all, and made them his own.
His instrumental versions are playful and rarely deep; his vocal work always sounds, to me, like he's grinning as he sings. This brings a consistent approach to his songs, but because the source material is so diverse, his covers never sound the same -- even before the relatively wide set of production modes of Nectar brought us a fulfilled potential for a greater diversity of song and performance.
Today, some covers from Brooks Williams before-and-after. First, some lovely instrumental work on familiar covers of Toots and the Maytals, popjazzman Pat Metheny, ex-Hot Tuna bluesman Jorma Kaukonen, and a crisp and playful Beethoven classic, along with an older, lighthearted something from Sam Phillips/T-Bone Burnett in which you can hear the guitarplay overwhelm the vocal stylings and lyrics. Then, for comparison, a gorgeously atmospheric Dougie MacLean cover, and a pair of lush, melodic folkpop takes on John Martyn and Memphis Slim songs from Nectar. Plus a holiday bonus song that needs no introduction.
Brooks Williams, the solo acoustic guitar virtuoso:
- Brooks Williams, 54-46 (Was My Number) (orig. Toots and the Maytals)
- Brooks Williams, Travels (orig. Pat Metheny)
- Brooks Williams, Water Song (orig. Jorma Kaukonen)
- Brooks Williams, Joyful, Joyful (orig. L. van Beethoven)
Brooks Williams, the singer-songwriter:
- Brooks Williams, Libera Me (orig. Sam Phillips)
- Brooks Williams, She Loves Me (When I Try) (orig. Dougie MacLean)
- Brooks Williams, May You Never (orig. John Martyn)
- Brooks Williams, Mother Earth (orig. Memphis Slim)
Brooks Williams' newest CD is slated to be released just after the new year. No matter what it sounds like, it will surely be another daring, crisp set of songs both familiar and innovative, full of his standard string-subtleties, worth listening to a dozen times or more. Get Nectar and Little Lion while you wait for its release, and start a love affair with a maestro as undersung and overlooked as the artists he covers here.
Today's bonus Holiday coversong:
- Brooks Williams, I Wonder as I Wander (trad.)
Looking for more acoustic coversongs? Head over to Covering the Mouse, where later today I’ll be guestposting a sweet scatsong bossa nova version of Cinderella classic Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.
And don't forget to come back Friday, when we'll be featuring folkcovers of popular Christmas songs written by Jews.