Jess Williamson

Jess Williamson at Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia, Pa, May 5, 2018,

May 09, 2018 Web Exclusive Photography by Matt Caltabiano Bookmark and Share


On Saturday night in Philadelphia, Frankford Avenue, the hip stretch of main road through the gentrified Fishtown section of the city, was awash with young people. Open-air bars were buzzing with the sounds of merriment. Any variety of upscale eatery was packed to the gills with well-dressed men and women enjoying a night on the town. All of them, however, but for a select few, missed the night's best attraction. Los Angeles-via-Austin songwriter Jess Williamson was opening a bill to a small crowd at the Johnny Brenda's restaurant/bar/club on the corner of Frankford and East Girard, across from a bustling German beer garden. A few were the wiser. The rest missed out.

On Friday, Williamson will release her third album, Cosmic Wink, her previous two albums being issued on her own label, Brutal Honest. Cosmic Wink is Williamson's first for Mexican Summer Records. It's an album of slow unraveling beauty, a singer-songwriter's album rife with nuance and fraught with emotion. Its main theme is love, love not only in the physical sense but also in the metaphysical, love both in the concrete and abstract, love across generations, love as a be all and end all, love as hope. It's an album to be listened to with an attentive ear, preferably through headphones, an album that plays best with full immersion.

Tonight, Williamson bought Cosmic Wink to Philadelphia. It was her first time playing the city, and the results were staggering. With her five-piece band, Williamson ran through eight of the album's nine songs on this night, her slot as opener to atmospheric trio Loma not allowing time for exploration of her back catalog.

From the opener "White Bird," which features the perfect line for an artist's first time in a new town, "Be kind to me, this is not my city," it was clear that Williamson's live performance lends an extra instrumental heft to her emotionally deep repertoire.

Through songs "Awakening Baby" and "I See the White," Williamson emoted lyrics that were both resonant and captivating, so clear and forward in a live setting. "Wild Rain" found Williamson's voice enveloped in ethereal backdrop, the instruments building to climax at the song's end. And "Thunder Song," rendered with its stunning a cappella first verse, was lush and hypnotizing like the best of Cocteau Twins.

Williamson dedicated "Love on the Piano," Cosmic Wink's closing track, to any married people in the audience before expanding her statement to anyone in love, saying, "You don't need a social contract to define your relationship." Ending with "Dream State" and "Mama Proud," Williamson concluded her 45-minute set with a pair of tunes that best encapsulate Cosmic Wink's tone and purpose.

It was a shame that Williamson didn't have longer to play, to explore her catalog in greater detail. It was a shame that more people from just outside the venue's doors, up and down Frankford Avenue, weren't privy to the musical revelation occurring within mere steps of their bottomless brews. Love was in the air on this night, and Williamson was at its center, utterly captivating. (www.jesswilliamson.com)




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