Dar Williams, a folk singer/songwriter with a worldwide contingent of fervent, adoring fans, brought her studio band from her most recent album, My Better Self, to Harvard’s Sanders Theatre last Thursday and Friday. At times, Williams validated her fans by transporting the audience to a special place reserved only for the most charismatic and influential of performers. When she chose to showcase her band, though, her recent set of songs crumbled under their weight too often.
There were moments of excellence-times when Williams demonstrated exactly why she holds audience in rapturous anticipation. With the lights down low and just her with her guitar, Williams sang “How Far Love Goes,” a song written for her newborn son. It felt like she had taken us to a mountaintop just within view of heaven, and with every soul in harmony with their mothers celebrating the beauty of motherhood, she wrapped her arms around her audience and gave them all a hug. She completely filled the warm space of Sanders, and proved that, with her dynamism and personality, she doesn’t need, and often can be diluted by, another set of instruments competing for attention.
All of which isn’t to say the band was all bad. On the contrary, Julie Wolfe on keyboards and Ben Butler on guitars added new dimensions to old and new songs alike. Wolfe’s contributions of new textures at the beginning of songs set very rich emotional backgrounds, while Butler completely stole the show. His new guitar parts interspersed between Williams’ vocal lines and variety of solos expanded the emotional range of the night. He connected with the songs so well it seemed as if he had written them himself.
In the last half-decade, Williams has started to move from folk to pop, and often puts a glossy sheen on the top of her songs that hides their beauty and differences. Like a docent illuminating a Florentine art museum, Butler finds what was hiding beneath this surface and brings it to light. On “Empire,” a polemic of recent U.S. foreign policy, he wailed to the point of flat out rawk, injecting a fresh dose of testosterone and drive into the night. During “Praying To The Firmament,” Butler and Wolfe powerfully lifted Williams on her song-guided ascent and gave her an aura that accentuated her personality and made her even more mystical. I got the feeling that if Butler were accompanying Williams washing dishes, he could turn even that into a powerful emotional cleansing.
Unfortunately, though, there was a constant reminder that Williams was indeed earthbound. A rhythm section that played too loudly and heavily, combined with the often-plodding songs, kept us from fully taking the leap into otherworldliness. The drums in particular were overbearing on nearly every song. The acoustics in Sanders had great potential, and at times were very beautiful, but all too often the drums couldn’t restrain themselves from overpowering Williams. It’s likely that the layout of Sanders, which forced the sound technician to be on stage with the band, was a big part of the problem. They weren’t the only culprits, though. On songs like “Beautiful Enemy,” which is one of Williams’ most up-tempo songs, or “Both Sides Of The River,” a bayou blues that thrives on a heavy backbeat, the percussive heaviness wasn’t a problem, and a lot of it could have been prevented with a little more giddy-up in the songwriting department. In particular, it seemed as if Williams only knew one way to take a song from inviting first verse to a powerful, fully orchestrated chorus, and that method was trite and muddled.
When the band left in the middle of the concert and Williams did a few songs on her own, there was palpable relief in the audience. It was as if we were a long-distance HBS partner visiting for the weekend, happy to meet our student’s brilliant, dynamic friends (with the exception of that one overbearing guy-you know who I’m talking about-being played by the drummer), but really just longing for some alone time with our amour. Having made it through the raucous party and back home, Williams rewarded us for our social patience with some truly inspirational moments, reminding us why we love her so much.
We’ll likely never have the Williams we had in the early days: at times wistful, at other times strong and impassioned, but always insightful and true just to herself. No, Williams is out exploring the world and songwriting, finding new band mates, and sometimes even taking missteps. And if she needs the social interaction of the band to feel complete herself, her fans will love her all the same, just as long as she continues to take time to provide them with warm, genuine intimacy in her solo work.