Dar Williams Brings Smart Songwriting to Landmark

Intelligent, quirky, charming and talented singer/songwriter puts on a great show.

Dar Williams at Landmark on Main StLast Friday night’s performance by Dar Williams marked her third time gracing the stage at Landmark on Main Street. I saw her all three times, so it’s safe to surmise that I am, in fact, a Dar Williams fan and therefore am predisposed to enjoying her shows. That being said, this most recent show was a bit different than the past two in that she was accompanied by a young piano/keyboard player Bryn Robert. In the past, it has just been Dar and her acoustic guitar — which is why it took me two songs to get used to the different sound.

She opened with “Calling the Moon,” a track from her album Green World which, interestingly, was originally covered by Richard Shindell who will be performing (a sold out show) at Landmark on Saturday. This was followed by a track from her latest album, 2008’s Promised Land. I found the keyboard overpowering in this song (“The Easy Way”) and was a little unhappy with the keyboard/guitar mix, but after this particular song, I didn’t notice any other mix problems. In fact, I was particularly impressed with the pretty piano work on the next song, “The Beauty of the Rain.”

Dar is a talker, but a bright and interesting one. Each song is preceded by a (sometimes rambling) quirky story about its inspiration. Sometimes she told humble but humorous tales about her career. She comes across as someone you’d love to sit across from in a bohemian coffee house, sipping herbal tea and talking about politics and environmentalism.

Her songs are varied and remarkably intelligent. Who but Dar Williams would actually write a song about the “Milgram experiment” that took place at Yale University in the 1960s? For those of you unfamiliar with the Milgram experiment, a brief history lesson — Stanley Milgram was a Yale University psychologist who conducted experiments to measure the willingness of study participants (college students) to obey orders, even when it meant doing something they felt was wrong. In the experiments, the study participants were ordered to administer electric shocks to people who answered questions wrong. If they balked, an authority figure would tell them that they had to administer the shocks. As this is a music review, and not a psychology paper, I’ll just encourage you to read the Wikipedia entry to learn more.

Anyway, Dar Williams tackled this topic in the song “Buzzer,” which contains the lyrics, “I’m feeling sorry for this guy that I press to shock. He gets the answers wrong, I have to up the watts. And he begged me to stop but they told me to go. I press the buzzer, I press the buzzer.”

Dar’s songs are like that. The Wesleyan University graduate is not afraid to tackle heavy and diverse topics — like facing the fact that your child is growing up (“The One Who Knows”) or realizing that your sex limits you in certain ways (“When I Was a Boy”). Her lyrics are wonderful, clever, and often touching. Two of her songs have brought tears to my eyes — the aforementioned “The One Who Knows” and the poignant “The Babysitter’s Here” sung from the point of view of a child.

While Dar is a competent guitarist, her strength is in her songwriting and her fine clear voice that conveys such emotion. Her guitar playing seems mainly to be an accompaniment. By midway through her first set, I was appreciating the fact that she’d added a backup musician as it did add some variety of sound. She played about 17 songs, including a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” that was requested by a very vocal audience member. I’m sure Pink Floyd never could have envisioned a folk version of that particular song, but it translated well. She also did another unlikely cover (“Midnight Radio”) from the play Hedwig and the Angry Inch whose composer was a college friend.

If you missed this show … my sympathies. But do yourself a favor and listen to her music, and if we are lucky enough to have her visit Landmark on Main Street again, don’t miss the opportunity to see her live.