in performance: dar williams

dar williams. photo by traci goudie.

dar williams. photo by traci goudie.

For the better part of the past decade, New Yorker/New Englander Dar Williams has performed regularly in Lexington, refining a songwriting approach rooted in the more sentimental regions of traditional folk. While certain themes in her songs have evolved over time, Williams’ music remains fascinated with affairs of the heart pared down to conversational essentials that are conveyed quite credibly by the more delicate contours of her voice.

Her nine-song return to the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour last night at the Kentucky Theatre was more of the same, although that is hardly an insinuation her performance (she was the program’s only guest) was a rerun. In fact, Williams was in the early stages of previewing and promoting a new album, Promised Land, which is still a month away from release.

The four songs pulled from the new record didn’t initially seem like the sort of confessional coffeehouse music Williams established her career with during the early ‘90s. Buzzer, in fact, was inspired by the Milgram experiments of obedience – specifically, a measurement of a person’s willingness to follow orders, even to the point of inflicting pain upon another individual – conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s. Seemingly consumed by a fear of fascism, the tune ripped along at a frantic clip. Yet it was riddled with a more pervasive sense of self-doubt – a very unromantic sense, mind you – that suggested the protagonist had indeed de-evolved into “a face, a cause of war.”

Heavy stuff, perhaps, but the song still possessed a wicked confessional streak. More in line with the sentimental ties of Williams’ past music was You Are Everyone, a story that began as a sort of Hollywood blues that sought comfort along darker, more distant shores as it forged a story of chance and trust.

The other Promised Land tunes, The Easy Way and It’s Alright, were simpler in design and flew to less dramatic extremes. The former quietly embraced a sense of freedom both elusive and deceptive (“easy is never easy anyhow”) while the latter seemed at odds with itself as it sought, and then resisted, personal change.

The WoodSongs set – an unaccompanied program, which is always the most complimentary performance setting for Williams’ music – stopped short of a full promotion for the new material, though. She opened with a long time concert favorite, The Babysitter’s Here, a hippie snapshot recounted by a child with a bittersweet air and ending. It’s hard to remember a time when Williams didn’t perform this one. But after nearly 15 years, The Babysitter’s Here still reflects some of her most direct, emotive and, yes, sentimental images as well as her ability to translate them into compelling storytelling.

Similar childhood themes ruled the Peter Pan-like parable When I Was a Boy  while a comparatively obscure cautionary story from 2000’s underrated The Green World album, Spring Street, closed the show, in Williams’ words, “at the crossroads of spiritualism and consumerism.”

The highlight, though, was February, a slice of subtle romanticism chilled by temperament as much as climate. Williams remarked afterward that she grew up in an upstate New York community where the winters were savage enough that spring seemed as though it had to be earned. Maybe so. But an hour’s worth of Williams’ wintry fancy on a midsummer night proved to be cordial and beautifully cool.

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