I first heard of Dar Williams at an open mic at Club Passim in Harvard Square. I was in the middle of an intense infatuation with Joni Mitchell and fresh out of a summer playing violin in a folk band in Colorado, and I was experimenting with songwriting and exploring the local music scene. One woman’s performance stood out especially to me that night; an ex-opera singer who told us that she was just learning to play the guitar. Her teacher had given her two songs by an artist named Dar Williams to play: “Iowa” and “If I Wrote You.” I had never heard of the songs, but something about the haunting narrative of the verses stayed with me all the way home and when I walked in the door I immediately began to research the woman who wrote them.

As I listened to more of Dar Williams’ music I saw why I was so drawn to her. Like Joni’s, her songs are stories, with lilting details carried by folk-pop melodies. She talks about everything from sex to politics to religion to babysitters. I was very curious as to how her storyteller vibe would translate on stage. Some of the songs on her albums really moved me, but others seemed to pack so much detail that the magic was lost. You can get a fairly good sense of how some artists will be live from their recordings, but she was really a mystery to me.

At the show, Dar was hilarious- she probably had the best stage banter of any musician that I’ve ever seen. When a small child started whining insistently (and very audibly) in the back, she suggested that the parents bring him downstairs to the green room where there were gluten-free lemon cookies and “plenty of booze.”   Accompanying herself on guitar, she carried the melodies on a voice that managed to be both silvery and gritty at the same time. The stories that she told between songs put her writing in context, because they were all told with attention to detail in very interesting ways. She talked almost as much about texture and color and smell as she did about dialogue and people.

She was supported by only one other musician- a keyboardist who also sang some harmonies. Despite the bare stage, Dar kept the show upbeat with many energetic songs and a running commentary. The audience (about a third in their twenties, most of the rest in their sixties) seemed to love it, singing along and laughing at all of her jokes (it was hard not to). As for the translation of the storyteller vibe- I thought that she nailed it. With her conversational tone and vibrant personality, I felt as if I knew her personally at the end of the night. It was almost like going to a poetry reading rather than a concert – something that anyone who has an interest in songwriting should experience at some point.

I can’t end this article without mentioning the opening act, because they were phenomenal. The Rebecca West consists of Cameron Denzen Hammon (vocals), her husband Matt Hammon (vocals, guitar) and her brother Alex Denzen (vocals, guitar). Cameron had one of the best female voices that I’ve heard in a long time. Even if their songs had been plain, it would have been worth seeing them live just to hear her sing. The songs were anything but plain, however, with unconventional melodies and nearly flawless three-part harmonies. They had a very distinct energy; it wasn’t rock, but it had me on the edge of my seat- somehow it just got under my skin. Check out the song “Next Of Kin” off of their 2012 EP “Lost And Found” written about a Bosnian war criminal- you’ll see what I mean. You can download the whole EP for free over at Noisetrade!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.