Iris Williams: Catch her Sunday, Oct. 20 Details By Rob Lester
Like the Halley’s Comet of cabaret, Iris Williams is making rare New York City appearances this fall. The decades of experience show and shine like her sequined gown. You can catch this illuminated streak of glowing glory on Sunday, October 20 at Metropolitan Room. Crisply elegant and regal, Iris
Williams can be a bit folksy, too. She’s a class act with the voice of warm brandy which envelops the room in her low-key, no-fussiness way. She knows her way around a ballad and its cozy corners. The diamond-perfect, refined (yet drenched with emotion) “He Was Beautiful” is the highlight of the show; her just celebrated recording of this theme from The Deer Hunter holds up wonderfully and holds its head high. Haunting and hushed, it’s hypnotic and a bit exotic. Much of the Welsh-born contralto’s program is made up of time-tested standards. She goes through her paces with an occasional change-of-pace moment.
The Williams entrenched aura of sophistication is given relief by (or is somehow refreshingly at odds with?) some seemingly casual, but maybe studied and well-honed, quips. Likewise, her ultra-brisk version of “Ol’ Man River” comes as an odd shock of caffeine from that warm brandy. Perhaps she’s assuming everyone in her audiences is music-savvy, but she chooses not to acknowledge that both this and a number sung close to its spot (“Bill”) are both from Show Boat. I also noted that in a long section of Nat King Cole evergreens, she doesn’t set it up clearly as such and never refers to him by his full name. So, those with less page-turning in the Great American Songbook might not be clued in. Did she feel it unnecessary, thinking , that Nat-urally, everyone would have the reference points. Certainly her version of “Mona Lisa” was treated with intelligence and welcome seriousness.
Chatting with the audience and getting into lyrics, she makes herself accessible without being fully vulnerable. She may break the fourth wall, but puts up one of her own at times. Very much the solid pro, she’s efficient and the quality of her contralto voice is often sufficient to sustain interest and hold one in thrall, but I yearned for more yearning in her yearning ballads. I would have liked more originality and naked risk in some of the arrangements and phrasing to make the oldies sound newly-thought-out and acted. The sly humor and put-downs of self and lover in “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” don’t land. I’m used to hearing a laugh of surprise or appreciation on lines in this, such as the sexual reference “Horizontally speaking, he’s at his very best” and others. But I didn’t hear a titter or chuckle in her performance of it for a packed Metropolitan Room house (nor with hundreds more in the concert hall at the Cabaret Convention a few days later).
One feels she and we are in safe, professional hands (OK, maybe too “safe”) with this true lady and her chosen musicians: pianist Art Weiss, percussionist Jeff Pillinger and the always tasty Tom Hubbard on bass. Still, it feels like an honor to be in her specific presence and this appreciated example of an old-school pro of a performer who knows her craft, fore and aft.
PHOTO BY MARYANN LOPINTO