MUSIC | That good old feeling from Will Hutchinson, and brave new material from Alicia Wiley


On the strength of Alicia Wiley‘s recommendation, I’m at the Fine Line in Minneapolis on a crisp March night to catch singer-songwriter Will Hutchinson. That, and the fact that Wiley is heading the bill: one thing I try not to ever do is miss Alcia Wiley on-stage. Plus, she’s working on a yet another album, her sixth in rapid succession (the woman should just rent living quarters at the studio), and will be previewing it at the gig.

Opening acts the Pin-ups and Tens of People have done their sets and departed by the time I arrive. Hutchinson’s set as the featured act is pleasant. With airy, wistful vocals, backing himself capably on acoustic rhythm guitar, leading a band of lead guitar, drums and bass, he shows considerable promise as a tunesmith. Can’t be much out of his early 20s with a likeable demeanor, has a good command of melody and avoids getting stuck in a stylistic rut. The songs are folkish soft-rock that give the impression he’s got a vintage record collection or has been listening to his parents’ stack of oldies. For instance, Hutchinson starts out with “March” from his fine debut album Arrive, casually strumming in idle, upbeat fashion; as the number gets underway, I can’t help thinking, If Neil Young could actually sing, this is sort of what he’d sound like. Hutchinson has that kind of laid-back feel, but can actually hold a tune and phrases nicely. It’s a good set, marvelously enhanced when Wiley sits in to supply smokey vocals for a duet on the old John Hiatt chestnut “Have A Little Faith In Me.” You won’t find it recorded by either of them, so next time they’re on a bill together, make it a point to drop in. They do the song beautifully.

For her set, vocalist-pianist par excellence Alicia Wiley is accompanied by guitar, bass, and drums. If you came to hear this or that song from one or more of her albums, forget it. She does a gorgeous cover of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” and a splendid rendition of “Halfway Home” and “Flame” from her current CD Halfway Home. The rest of the night is devoted to introducing new material from the project she is the middle of recording for release later this year.

Wiley is a firm believer in challenging herself, which keeps her from falling into the trap of rehashing old ideas, no matter how well they worked, when she comes out with a new album. She keeps painting with new, improved colors. This time around she has outdone herself. The
first tunes of the evening, “Goldmine” and “Floodgates,” are impressionistic. Daring at times to even be discordant, Wiley goes some very interesting places with them, and I’ve got to hand it to
her. Most folk, yours truly included, would open with something that if it isn’t at least familiar, has an upbeat, crowd-friendly appeal to it. Nope. Wiley begins with this pair of meandering, oddly structured forays into free-form jazz—weird melodies with introspective phrasing. Good stuff. Takes me some getting used to, but, yeah, good, well-written stuff.

“Beautiful Surprise,” “Fire,” and, for that matter, the rest of the set are considerably more accessible and, hands-down, wonderful additions to the Alicia Wiley catalog. Her poignant, sultry style is intact—it’s simply stronger. More adventurous than ever. One thing, though, remains absolutely the same since day one: those sardonic lyrics of hers. From “Dangerous,” you have “It’s hide and seek/ Curiosity/ Your echo takes on a new shape/ Look left, look right/ While your wings are wide/ I still love your face/ Though it has many sides” as one of the verses and a chorus, “Is it really so good/ Is it really so good to keep looking out for me/ You say I’m all you need to stay dangerous.” By the time she’s done, it’s undeniable—incredibly gifted as she has always been, her new material puts Alicia Wiley in, as the saying goes, a class all by herself.

Disclaimer: I was an Alicia Wiley fan long before she agreed to join me in the studio for my just-finished project, Dwight Hobbes and the All-Star Hired Guns featuring Alicia Wiley.