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Londoner Olivia Chaney and Waukesha native Hayward Williams play the first-ever show at The Back Room.

Live from Colectivo Coffee featuring Olivia Chaney. Photo by Kenny Yoo.

Live from Colectivo Coffee featuring Olivia Chaney. Photo by Kenny Yoo.

Pabst Theater Group paired a strong pair of singer-songwriters for its June 14 show at The Back Room, its first at the performance space inside Colectivo Prospect. Londoner Olivia Chaney – guitar, keyboards and harmonium in tow – is the first nationally touring act to play this unorthodox venue that’s also customizable to the size of the show, whether intimate (as this was) or expansive.

Chaney released her debut album, The Longest River (Nonesuch), in April. Waukesha native Hayward Williams opened to an engaged, coffee-sipping, muffin-eating audience seated at a hodgepodge of tables. “My job is to make you as sad as possible,” he said, “so that Olivia can, uh, bring you up.” That was far from the case.

Live from Colectivo Coffee featuring Olivia Chaney. Photo by Kenny Yoo.

Live from Colectivo Coffee featuring Olivia Chaney. Photo by Kenny Yoo.

Williams’ remarkably deep, bluesy voice carried an undertone of vulnerable urgency – if not joyful, certainly not crest-fallen – that swept the room, fading light flickering down through the beams from the double-pitched skylight. During Williams’ first few songs, Chaney stood near the room’s entrance, smiling along with his jokes. (“Anyone from LA?… [To which, no one replies.] Screw that town.”) With shelves of leafy potted plants on the wall behind him, Williams performed a short, stripped-down set of soulful songs. His fifth solo album, The Reef, came out in 2014.

Live from Colectivo Coffee featuring Olivia Chaney. Photo by Kenny Yoo.

Live from Colectivo Coffee featuring Olivia Chaney. Photo by Kenny Yoo.

Backed by violinist Jordan Hunt, Chaney assumed the stage sans shoes, her tall frame defined by her signature long, dark, loose-hanging hair. Her voice, at once balanced and uncannily solemn, carried the transfixed audience through the next 90-plus minutes. The 33-year-old has been called part of a wave of British folk. But her songs seem anything but relegated to a single genre. In one song, the graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Music became a 13th century French chanteuse. Other tunes make forays into Scottish folk music and maudlin, dreamy lullabies.

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Williams tweeted shortly before the show that “Y’all should probably get on the @OliviaChaney train because it’s gonna leave the station soon. And ur gonna want to be along for the ride.” Truth.

As for the space, Pabst Theater Group doesn’t consider The Back Room an “official”4th venue – along with the Riverside Theater and Turner Hall – but does plan to capitalize on the warm,  easily modified nature of the room with occasional shows.

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