Live Review: Dar Williams
Dar Williams–The Duck Room at Blueberry Hill–St. Louis, MO–August 18, 2009
I read recently that Dar Williams felt trepidations about naming her latest album Promised Land because it shares its name with a famous Bruce Springsteen song. Well, there was Dar-ness on the edge of town last night, and the crowd that packed into the Duck Room in St. Louis to see her were howling like the dogs on main street. It was excruciatingly warm in the club—air conditioning didn’t come with the ticket price, apparently—but the Dar Devotees seemed to mind not, hanging on her every sung note and rambling ‘tweener story. Williams wore a brown sundress, and her long hair was unusually full-bodied, the result, she explained, of a rare curling-iron experiment, and while she mentioned the heat once, she also claimed that she loved playing “grottos” like this one.
The bulk of the evening’s set came from last year’s Promised Land, and hooray for that. It’s a superior collection of songs, played last night in stripped-down fashion—just Dar on acoustic guitar, Bryn Roberts on keys, and Jordan Hamlin on guitar/bass/accordion. This arrangement left me a bit cold on the faster numbers—I missed the crackle of the full-band from the studio versions of “It’s Alright” and “The Easy Way.” On the other hand, those songs are good enough, especially the latter, that she still got them over, although the evening’s true golden moments were her elegiac readings of the album’s slower numbers, “You are Everyone” and the sweeping “Summerday.”
Williams is a terrific singer, of course, and her voice has developed into a richer alto over the years, somewhere in the Aimee Mann wheelhouse, although on the uptempo janglers, she sounds like no one so much as Chrissie Hynde. But Dar is no pretender; she sings mostly like Dar Williams, with a laid-back vocal delivery—she doesn’t open her mouth very wide–and you never get the impression that she’s singing with unnecessary affectations. In fact, most of the night, as on her records, these songs were refreshingly undersung.
The night offered ample opportunities to reflect on Williams’ thoughtful, skilled songwriting. My favorite moments were the fingerpicked “If I Wrote You,” a lost treasure from 1997’s End of the Summer, and 2005’s “The Hudson,” a New York song that can stand alongside any other. “The Tide Falls Away,” co-written by the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, was another highlight, with its unconventional cascading melody. And the much-discussed “Buzzer” pushed the audience’s button–it’s the best song about the Milgram Experiments since Peter Gabriel’s So album. The biggest crowd response by far, though, was for the uproarious “The Christians and the Pagans,” Dar’s ode to reaching across the dining table of faith.
What worked least for me was the extensive stage patter between songs. Those who’ve seen Williams before are familiar with these stammering, self-effacing chats, but tonight she dedicated half of her stage time to non-sequitors and rather self-indulgent grabs for laughs. She got the laughs from her devoted crowd (85% female), so she kept the stories coming. I would’ve taken more songs. After all, Dar Williams has written seven albums of consistently-fine, literate material; she can afford to let the music do a little more of the talking.