Live Review: Karl S Williams @ Heya Bar, 23.04.15

Heya Bar, a brand new bustling underground den in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, might seem at first like a strange choice of venue for the acoustic offerings of an old soul like Karl S Williams. The lights are dimmed to the point of nonexistence, lush red tones and street signs in varying Asian languages cover the walls, and cheeseburger spring rolls (yes, cheeseburger spring rolls) are being served to table after table of rowdy revellers who wait impatiently for their turn to play a game of pool or pinball. Hardly comes across as the place to unwind with movingly guttural folk music.

But tonight the little stage, positioned in a room with eye-level windows that give us a view of the Doc Martens-clad feet that trudge past, is a haven from the chaos Heya Bar is home to. It’s awash with blue light, cosy but not cramped, with ample seating around the walls and plenty of space to move in the middle of the room: the antithesis to the bar and restaurant to our right. Heya Bar refuses to be pigeonholed, and in that way, it’s actually the perfect venue for Karl S Williams – because so does he.

Even superficially, Williams is something of an enigma. From the neck down, he dresses like a dude who frequently visits corporate drinks hangout Fridays’ and probably went to a private school. From the neck up, he looks like a hallmark hipster, donning a truly impressive beard and a bushman’s hat decorated with a flower crown.

It’s confusing at first, but if you know Karl S Williams’ history – a Byron Bay man who migrated to the Gold Coast – it makes a little more sense. You may even presume to have him all figured out from just those pieces of information. Don’t. For all the visual dichotomy Williams’ aesthetic might provide, it is absolutely superfluous once he begins to play.

Before I get too ahead of myself, it’s important that I pay due diligence to Williams’ talents as a multi-instrumentalist. He calls his guitar “Ida Belle” and his banjo “Bettie Mae”, and though he admits he came fairly late to the music game, throughout the night he plays both these – and the keyboard – with skillful flair and ample heart. Bettie Mae affords him an opportunity to venture into grittier bluesy territory. He holds and wrenches chords from his guitar like his life depends on it. He taps away softly at piano keys, capable of quick-fingered riffs and decor.

Photo by Holly Pearson

Photo by Holly Pearson

Not to take away from any of that, not at all – but Karl S Williams’ voice is the instrument that he truly has gobsmacking mastery of. His range, both literally in terms of the notes he is capable of reaching (I could swear I heard some bi tonal singing during the beautiful single he’s touring, Is This Love?) and in the stories he can tell with just the timbre of his voice, is beyond compare. There is pain, tenderness, confidence, devastation, cautiousness, comfort, and there are countless shades in between.

Perhaps the thing that makes Williams’ live show so compelling is his ability to lay himself completely bare emotionally, his willingness to show us his soul in the rawness of his lyrics and the honesty of his delivery, in the hopes that some or all of us will recognise a piece of our own struggle in his. His efforts are fruitful: it’s difficult not to feel like you’re not really at a gig, and that those melodies are actually a powerful and poignant real-life soundtrack pervading the background.

The journey that Karl S Williams takes us on covers a wide ground; from whimsy-folk to heartfelt piano pop to very near White Stripes territory. A man clearly full of humility, he puts on no airs at all. Everything feels wholly transparent – it’s undeniably captivating to see such barefaced honesty. We’re left with a sense of soul-deep satisfaction from all the beat-driven foot-stomping and face-all-scrunched-up “Yeah!!”s.

As time ticks on, and Williams reveals trick after astounding vocal trick, there are more than a few looks of disbelief and astonishment being exchanged around the room. He has the most vocal and emotional stamina I’ve ever seen – there’s no sign of exhaustion in either realm as he belts song after song, feeling each one to his absolute depths as he must have done the day he wrote them.

For his closing number, Karl S Williams puts down his guitar. He removes his hat and holds it in one hand to his chest. He tells us he’s going to sign a hymn. That hymn is What Wondrous Love Is This. I put down my phone. I don’t take any notes. I have no words.

Karl S Williams’ Is This Love? tour has wrapped up, but be sure to watch the gorgeous video for the single, co-starring the lovely and talented Thelma Plum.

Photos by Holly Pearson

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