Dar Williams is a very talented singer songwriter who has eschewed others ideas of who she should be and has remained true to her own views of what she is. She isn’t flashy, she doesn’t flaunt herself, and she doesn’t sing through Auto-Tune. She is however very insightful and for the dutiful listener she will take you up and make you feel euphoric before twisting you around breaking your heart. Dar Williams tonight played City Winery in Lower Manhattan and I was lucky enough to get to sit in on her set at the venue.
First up was Toshi Reagon who played a short, four songs set. For those of you who are not familiar with Toshi as I was not she is an American folk singer who has played at places as divergent as The White House and Joe’s Pub in Manhattan.
The first song Toshi played was called “Another Man Broke His Word.” She introduced the song by riffing into New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg saying she was unsatisfied with how he just “bullied his way into mayor of New York for a third term.” The title of her song was not about the mayor because Toshi told the audience, “I wrote this song when I was 16 and Regan was President.” She then encouraged every person in the audience to not listen to what the polls say and just “stand up and take your turn and cast your vote. In this election and in every election.”
Dar Williams came out and the attitude was very congenial. Day played sometimes solo acoustic and sometimes with her two member band. Ben Butler was on electric guitar and Brin Roberts played piano, keyboards, and miscellaneous sounds. The first number in her set was as New York City a song as you can find in her catalog; the wonderfully symbolic Spring Street. City Winery is located on Varick, a short block from Spring St.
Dar had her curly, dirty blonde hair hanging down to her sides. Her energy was very nervous for such a relative veteran of the music industry. As the audience would come to find out she had a great deal to be nervous for. Not only was the space at City Winery rather intimate but many of the subjects of her songs or the people she’s looked up to throughout her career were sprinkled amidst the crowd this evening.
Dar spoke about her great “downtown career” and being able to “hold onto a shred of dignity (when dealing with) these things called ‘major labels.'” That comment was one of many which got a laugh. Dar spoke very personally about her relationship with Razor and Tie, her record label.
Dar had an aluminum water bottle onstage with her which I guess was her silent protest against plastic water bottles. She kept things pretty light though at this set, probably partially because this was more than a crowd of strangers. The audience in attendance at City Winery this night were her friends, her family, her husband, and New York City obviously had deep resonance with her. Before she opened up The Beauty of the Rain, she remarked, “This is another song which came out of New York City.”
While we were in this downtown venue for the concert, it was first and foremost a restaurant and winery. City Winery serves food and refreshments and even though we had just had dinner with some friends of ours at a neighborhood pub, we still indulged the venue and I had a nice glass of bourgelais, my wife a tall glass of prosecco. Both were very good and left us smacking our lips with delight.
Before the next song in her set she spoke about how she “went to a bunch of different churches (as a girl) and the nice thing about that was that boys got dressed up.” She noted that this ability to view with impunity “made me feel very much Christly.”
Dar played a few oldies and goodies along with some new stuff from her new record, which is actually a complication double disc, “Many Great Companions.” The new record has a few new tracks and was just released this past Tuesday. Looking over the tracks, Many Great Companions is a real strong introduction to the singer/songwriter for those unfamiliar with her body of work.
The next song she played was one of her audience shootouts and the ridiculous thing about it was that she said how guilty she felt about not playing it more often. Then, in the middle of her verse, she forgot her lyric! She just began humourously mumbling gibberish to get her to the next part she knew. I thought that maybe she had been channeling Jesus; later on when she revealed that the songs subject was in fact in audience, I realized she was just very nervous. Either way, it was very funny. The song was The Babysitter’s Here.
The next song she played is another favorite of mine, “What Do You Hear in These Sounds,” and the songs subject and the songs inspiration are two very different things. When you listen to the lyric, one would think that this is coming from the mouth of a lifelong therapy patient or at least someone who is vaguely familiar with the institution. When introducing the number she said that one of her “favorite things to do to appease the creative muse was to go into the blockbuster matinees.” Not Blockbuster video but the current hit film just in the afternoon. She said she saw “Batman” with Nicole Kidman and her character in that film (a therapist) was the inspiration.
The last few songs were many of my all time Dar Williams favorites. “Are You Out There,” is the reason my wife says she and I are still together. The song is about a radio DJ and she said that without my having worked on the radio overnight, she never would have called me again. While I wonder a little bit if that’s true, it’s still one of those things that make you wonder about choices in life. Dar credited this song with her introduction to stations like BAI and FUV, real alternative radio stations that play music across a broad spectrum. She also bemoaned the similarity and homogenization of everything saying, “‘We the People’ is a nebulous way of getting things done but in a way it’s the only way.”
She then played the tender ballad, “If I Wrote You,” the tiny, feel-good, pop song, “Better Things,” “The One Who Knows,” which brought out two guest background singers, the daughter/mother combination of Lucy Wainwright Roche and Suzzy Roche. Then Dar closed her set with another New York song, “The Hudson.”
Then a strange thing happened. I turned to my wife and asked, “Why do artists have to do this whole ‘encore’ thing?” I imagined Dar would be better than that. That Dar would play her set and go off. That Dar had not caved to the pressures of procedure. Unfortunately she did stick to form and go off and come back on quickly. She seemed just as bothered with the whole thing as I did.
Her first encore was one of her earliest “When I Was a Boy,” which is one of the most beautiful songs in her catalog. Then, rather than actually end the night on an up-beat, she outdid herself and played another one of the most strikingly beautiful and horridly depressing songs she’s written, “February.” Before she played it though she remarked, “I view this as an optimistic song. We can discuss.” We’ll save the roundtable discussion for another time. The song, in short, is about keys and snow and flowers and the death and rebirth of love…kind of. It’s a very beautiful song but still Dar, “optimistic”?
Then again, Dar Williams isn’t apologizing to anyone about her views of the world or her opinions of her songs. She is an amazing folk artist who hasn’t sold out to the major labels or dyed her scalp pink while singing about destitution. Her songs are real, they are beautiful, they are tender, and they are her own. Dar Williams has retained and grown her organic group of followers in the only way she knows how, one by one by one.