Photo: Courtesy of Artist
I think if you’ve lived in Houston long enough, then you won’t be shocked by the massive amount of talent that resides here. The depth of talented artists and performers is so deep, that you should expect to find that there are genres you didn’t know about, or acts who cross over many different ones. In the vein of Americana, there are several names that I’m sure many of you can come up with when asked. However, one of Americana’s strongest voices in Houston is one you might not know about. Willy Collins, leader of The Willy Collins Band is one of those voices. Collins and his band have been performing a little over three years, and in that time they’ve made the rounds of releases and places to perform. What sets Collins apart from many Americana artists, is that his tales of love, pain, and anguish come off as believable as his thick and molasses drenched baritone sound like one of a road weary traveller. On their latest release, “Departures,” The Willy Collins Band sways in and out of a world where the instrumentation is top notch, the vocals are heartfelt, and the lyrics remind you of something Bob Dylan would pen.
This should be prefaced by the fact that Collins has an unconventional voice that reminds me of a deeper Warren Zevon, with a bit more humility. When he lets that voice go, there is more emotion is his creaky notes than you’ll hear when he sings in short bursts. It should also be noted that every song on “Departures,” is crafted by what sounds like, the best musicians you can hear on an album. Counting Collins, the group is a seven piece of everything from pedal steel and horns to keys and the traditional three instruments of guitars, drums, and bass. Coupled with the fact that there are also fourteen extra artists scattered throughout the release that include Chase Hamblin, Kam Franklin, and the album’s producer Josh Applebee; it’s obvious that Collins had a definite sound he wanted to achieve. The craft of the album is immeasurable by any other local band’s standards.
The album opens with a Bruce Springsteen type of warm convertible driving song, “Crash.” Piano, organs, and Collins’ deep voiced notes atop it all; it reminds you of something that you can’t put your finger on; but sounds familiar. This segues into a more country feel with the honky tonk twinged song, “Low.” The song reminds you of something that Johnny Cash would’ve written with lyrics about a woman. One of the album’s standouts, “End Of Days,” follows. The beauty of the song is that Collins drops a bit of the quick paced vocals and lets the humility of his voice out for a stroll. There’s a gruff nature to his vox as the pedal steel slides in and out of the song alongside a meandering piano. The song that follows, “Time On The Moon” had a little too much of an “America” by Neil Diamond feel for me. However, the following track, “After The Rain,” might be the best song on the release. Starting with simplistic acoustic, the drums jingle in with each accompanying instrument following as Collins goes back to his vocal strongpoint….vulnerability. There’s a desperation in his voice that gives the track a new life. It makes you realize that if Collins told you that he had lived all of the songs; you’d believe him.
A couple tracks later there’s the “What I Wouldn’t Do,” which echoes the vibe of a Van Morrison tune if it were performed by a Texas Swing band. This is followed by the Texana doo wop tune of “On Your Good Side,” which feels like it’s coming off the rails when Kam Franklin adds a soulful backing vocal to the medium paced tune. Two songs later, the album hits the final track, “For You.” Another standout on the album, there’s a hint of early era Bob Dylan while the harmonica, backing group vocals, and acoustic set the pace. The song incorporates a penny whistle like you’ve never heard before, on a song that feels like a fun spirited group effort from a party or jam that’s come to an end. There is a bonus track, the opener “Crash” performed acoustically. I actually preferred this version more, as the simplicity of Collins’ vocals alongside an acoustic guitar. The song is only made better by a single violin that seeps its way in and out of the song in a mix of beauty and emotion not found on the bigger band version.
The whole album is one that reminds you of a time when bands were full of accomplished performers who all brought something grander to the table. Collins’ does well when he sings songs with heavy handed lyrics, and really shines when he lets some of that vulnerability of his vocals out for everyone to hear. You can pick up a physical version of “Departures” when the band plays their album release party on Friday January 23rd at Warehouse Live. They’ll have Adam Bricks, Second Lovers, and Naked Maja opening things up for them with doors at 8:00 for the all ages show in The Studio.