2/27/15 – Red Room at Cafe 939

Secret Smile” came to Dan Wilson in a dream. He woke up in the middle of the night with the melody and rushed to the piano to write it down. In the morning, it seemed too familiar—he thought that he’d stolen it from somewhere. Wilson released the song with his band Semisonic and it soon became an international hit. Since Semisonic, he has launched a successful solo career and gained critical acclaim as a songwriter and producer. On Friday night, we got a glimpse behind the curtain with “Words and Music by Dan Wilson.”

Wilson came on stage dressed casually in all black, holding a beat-up acoustic guitar. The rest of the stage was bare except for one piano and one keyboard, which were manned by his accompanist, Brad Gordon. The Red Room @ Cafe 939 had uncharacteristically set up chairs for this show, giving the 200-capacity venue a listening-room feel that was perfect for stories. The space filled soon after the doors opened and people clustered in groups of two or three, eagerly discussing the songs that they hoped he’d play.

He started off with a track from his latest album, Love Without Fear. “A Song Can Be About Anything” was decidedly about “something”—specifically, a relationship.

“I played it for my friends, and they were like, Dan, that song isn’t about ‘anything’— it’s about the same thing you always write about!” he laughed. He strummed his guitar with the easy confidence of a seasoned musician. The rocking motion of his hips kept his time, and he smiled as he belted out the lines.

Wilson has a way of putting into words things that you’ve thought about but never knew quite how to say. Listening to his music is a little bit like going to someone’s house and seeing that they’ve got a book by your favorite obscure author on their bookshelf. He also knows how to break your heart; “Breathless,” off of his 2007 solo debut Free Life, does just that. The song is simple—it keeps pretty much the same chord changes throughout, but the chorus tugs on high minor melodies and squeezes every ounce of music out of those chords.


Much of Wilson’s recognition comes from the behind-the-scenes work he’s done for other artists. “Someone Like You,” he co-wrote with Adele; “Not Ready to Make Nice,” was written with the Dixie Chicks. He played both on Friday night. He explained how he had originally suggested a softer approach for “Not Ready to Make Nice,” which was written in response to a political drama that the band was embroiled in after speaking out against the Iraq war.

“Then Natalie [Maines] said, ‘Does that mean that we’d have to forgive the people that fucked us?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, well, I guess for this song it would.’ And she just went, ‘Nope.’ After that, writing the song was a whole lot of fun. We just kept coming up with these lines and I would say ‘Uh oh, they’re not going to like this one, girls.’”

Throughout the set, Wilson’s banter was fluid. He paired each song with an anecdote, or told the story of its inspiration. Unknown to many was the story behind “Closing Time,” which is undeniably the most well-known song by Semisonic. Most people know the song as an ode to that time of the night when you’re about to get kicked out of the bar.

“But it was also at a time where every song I wrote had a double meaning,” Wilson recalled. “I was obsessed by the fact that my wife was pregnant at the time, and so ‘Closing Time’ is also about being born. ‘Closing time / Open all the doors and let you out into the world.’ See? ‘Closing time / This room won’t be open ‘til your brothers or your sisters come.’ You know, until there are more siblings.”

The show was two hours long, with no intermission, and the crowd still wasn’t ready to let him leave at the end. Even after a three-song encore. On the way to the lobby, ushers handed us “illuminated setlist” posters—setlists that were personalized for the February 26-28 shows of the tour played in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

Besides the titles of the songs, the paper had notes and shortened versions of Wilson’s anecdotes–it was even in color. He came out to sign them and meet the audience after the show. As fans will often buy merchandise just so they have something for the artist to sign after the show, giving out free posters was a pretty generous touch. However, I recalled something that he had said earlier:

“Whenever I’m writing a song, either by myself or with someone else, I try to imagine how it would be to play it for a room full of people like you—my people.”

“Words and Music by Dan Wilson” felt like just that—a show played just for us. It was like a friend playing you a personalized concert in their living room (a really talented, Grammy-winning friend). This feeling could have been augmented by the fact that I was sitting ten feet away from him, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. When I left The Red Room well after 10:30 PM, the line to meet him still stretched nearly out the door.

Effortless: Dan Wilson
  • Intimate performance
  • Good audience interaction
  • Diverse set
  • Some songs could have used more instrumentation
9.5Overall Score

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