Paul Williams in Concert

The Warner Grand Theater, San Pedro, Calif. - March 8, 2008

A concert review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker (progdawg@hotmail.com).

It's considered a hallmark of aesthetic irrectitude amongst my inky compeers but I've long been a fan of Paul Williams' music…especially his work for Brian DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise, a cult film that only gains in luster and campy excellence as time progresses. Much of that film's many virtues lies in a soundtrack wherein Williams lampoons a number of modes—surf, cabaret, rock, etc.—with tongue wickedly in cheek and chops honed to a lancing edge. I hadn't even realized how long it had been that I'd thought about Williams, who has sort of dropped off the public's map, when the mother of one of my students asked if I wanted to join a group trekking down to the beautiful art deco relic known as the Warner Grand to catch the songsmith in a special performance for The House of Hope, a local institution aiding troubled women to regain their feet and esteem, a very worthy project indeed.

What may be surprising to many is the fact that Williams is an ex-alcoholic who spent many years inside the bottle and is now not at all abashed to speak about it. His disarming honesty and warmth provided many insights and sobering reflections between songs; in fact, these revelations and their delivery alone were arresting for their candor and refusal to bask in either maudlin or faux-holy sentimentation. Ironically, that honesty, when one thinks about it, is exactly germane to the genius that caused him to pen so many classics and standards: an openness of heart and narrative refusing to take the easy path.

Williams' specialty has always been his writing, his compositions, though he's released many LPs. As a performer, he can be either spot-on or uneven, and the audience saw a bit of both that night. On some tunes, the guy sailed through like an angel, perfectly attuned to the song's requisites and subtleties, drawing listeners into both; on others, he struggled gamely, which made the gig all the more interesting. I recall seeing Earl Hines in the mid-70s in Sarasota, Fla., and his performance was varied but striking for its professionality even when a bit off-kilter. Williams was no different. Hell, when David Bowie, REM, Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and even Kermit the Frog pack your songs into their LPs and concerts, it hardly matters whether you're a Yehudi Menuhin by way of Bing Crosby, it's the material that counts.

The band, however, was the disappointing culprit in the somewhat bumpy ride. The guitarist in particular was shockingly uninspiring and keyboardist Chris Caswell pretty much had to pick up whenever the rest of the five-piece was deficient, which was just a bit too often. Still, Williams reeled off a great best-hits processional of many of his well-known tunes liberally peppered with repartee and anecdotes. By the time the end of the performance was reached, he mentioned The Phantom and asked the audience what they wanted to hear. I and a woman across the aisle were rooting for Old Souls and almost won the day, but Paul was a bit leery of covering that one and instead turned in a killer version of The Hell of It, a fitting wind-up to a benefit for souls who had walked through hell and purgatory in real life, in real time, and managed to, in the end, keep head up and back straight…Williams included.

Copyright 2008, Peterborough Folk Music Society. This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.