Cal Williams Jr. – Radio Sessions
It can be tough to keep a career going in the music business. Most artists struggle to get enough gigs that pay a decent wage, allowing them to follow their dream with being tied to a “day job” and forty hour per week schedule. Hailing from South Australia, Cal Williams Jr. has taken a different approach by establishing his own cottage industry. He is the author of numerous instructional books on how to play guitar and ukulele, with separate editions for adults and children. Through Mel Bay USA, he offers books on blues or folk guitar tunings, two more guitar manuals, and one volume devoted to songwriting. In his spare time, he is a member of The Hushes, a trio that weaves bluegrass, folk, and blues elements into a dark acoustical brew.
But Williams Jr. is known in Australia for his solo work. An accomplished guitarist and songwriter, he has five albums to his credit that have received several awards in his native home. His latest releases offer slightly different views of his artistry. Low Down & Troubled is a studio recording while Radio Sessions contains a show recorded live-to-air on Radio Adelaide. The studio set contains eight Williams Jr. originals and two traditional pieces. On the live recording, he runs through three covers and one traditional piece in addition to six originals. Comparing the set lists shows five songs in common on the two discs.
In the studio, Williams Jr. demonstrates his immaculate guitar picking ability on an original folk blues piece, “Sky Was Green” and “Whiff On Me,” a jaunty traditional ode to the cocaine use. Singing in a voice that reaches into the upper end of the tenor range, the singer injects a sense of melancholy into “Alabama,” then sounds wistful on the folk ballad “Jeremiah”. Switching to slide guitar gives another original, “Mean Old World,” a harder edge.
The radio program opens with some intricate slide guitar on originals “Honeychild” and “Seventh Son,” sandwiched around a rendition of Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm,” with plenty of fleet-fingered picking. “Pale Blue Dress” offers a contrast between slashing slide licks and a mournful vocal. Williams Jr. generates some heat with a forceful performance of “Down To The River” before a reverent run-through of Bob Dylan’s classic, “I Shall Be Released”. He cranks up his slide one last time for a turbulent version of “Death Letter Blues”.
There is little to differentiate the fives songs common to both discs. The title track of the studio set gets a slightly longer guitar intro than one on the radio program. Both takes of “Gallis Pole” are equally intense. Versions of “”Broke Down Engine,” “California,” and “Sugar Mama” vary no more than four seconds from each other. While Williams Jr. is a skilled guitarist, his voice tends to float over the rhythmic patterns he creates, seldom engaging the listener on a deep emotional level. The songs start to sound the same by the end of either disc as any sense of dynamics are created by the tempo of his singing & playing. Still, there are a number of strong performances that should be of interest to fans of quieter side of the blues legacy, with the radio show disc the better value with two more songs plus 50% longer run time.