by Erick Trickey
I was at Dar Williams's first performance at the Ark, in April 1994. She opened for Ani DiFranco, and I've never seen an opening act stun and charm a crowd the way hers did. After five songs and one encore, it seemed as if half the audience leaped up and bought her debut album, The Honesty Room.
She was literary and funny, feminist and poetic, all in one short set - sometimes in one song. I still remember what she played that night. She won us over right away with "When I Was a Boy," about an ex-tomboy's nostalgia as she feels adult womanhood constraining her. "The Baby-Sitter's Here" viewed the age gap in reverse, through the eyes of a young girl idolizing her teenage hippie baby-sitter. "February" evoked a dying relationship with a metaphor of endless winter, and "Alleluia" introduced us to punk-rock teen angels who think heaven is just a boring high school.
Sure, DiFranco fans were naturally willing to give another female singer a chance, but we hadn't expected another major talent, so different from the headliner. Williams, whose sweet soprano sounded like intricate paintings full of emotional colors, was giving folk music new vitality.
Nine years and four more albums later, Williams is still a fresh voice, inspired by folk traditions but not stuck in them. She's avoided the singer-songwriter trap of living off the angst-filled love song and the angry protest song. She doesn't write about romance as often as she does about friendship, tense family ties, and an acutely viewed inner life, and one measure of her talent is that her political songs are among her most poetic. I could say, for instance, that "When I Was a Boy" is about how gender roles rob us of our full selves, but that sounds like rhetoric, and it misses how strongly we feel her loss after the song's vulnerable adult gives way to the resilient kid.
This winter Williams's show in
Columbus, Ohio, peaked with rousing songs from her early albums that got her fans onto their feet, as these songs have for years now. But her newer, serious songs seemed the deep heart of the show - especially two from my favorite album of hers, The Green World (2000): "After All," an intimate account of her emotional life, and "Spring Street," about the longing to find a place where your life can start again.
On Williams's new album, The Beauty of the Rain, her lyrics remain strong without breaking new ground, while the music is more intricately crafted than ever. Expect her and her band to give these songs a proper live debut and then finish off with the old favorites when they play at the Power Center on Tuesday, April 22.
[Originally published in April, 2003.]