In a quiet street behind the Hazlitt Theatre, away from the hubbub of Maidstone city centre, Dar Williams’s voice floated across the cobblestones in a brief warm-up before she and the band launched into a joyous version of ‘Teen For God’, the lead track from the latest in her long line of quality albums, My Better Self. A select crowd gathered to listen to stolen snippets of magic as we were privvy to a pre-show soundcheck of six semi-songs an hour before the show until the street descended into silence once more. ‘Teen For God’ did indeed open the actual show, and as Dar stepped out of the wings in jeans and a casual top, it was hard to believe that this tiny, beautifully self-deprecating woman on stage with a glitter-edged guitar was the same person who had overwhelmed the air outside. But it soon became clear that these apparently different personas were one and the same as she punctuated each drumbeat with an endearing little jump and highly infectious enthusiasm.
Each song was introduced with an anecdote explaining its origin, and, in one case, even a commentary on the tuning process as her first electric tuner broke and had to replaced. ‘Spring Street’ was Dar’s homage to her boho dreams amid the bustle of New York, while the percussion of ‘Close To My Heart’ was so perfectly arranged it was almost as if the vastness and heat of middle America were transported into the room, cicadas strumming in every corner. Next, she described the plot of Native American movie ‘Smoke Signals’ in which her song ‘Road Buddy’ featured, taking us on the long trip from New York to New Mexico and then “to the third capo and the land of the Jesuit priests” for ‘I Had No Right’. ‘The Beauty Of The Rain’ needed no introduction; the variety of emotions evoked in this single song exemplifies Dar’s massive appeal, imparting so much meaning to so many without ever becoming dogmatic.
The band made a fiery exit with the passionate and political ‘Empire’, its anti-capitalist messages made all the more forceful by their juxtaposition against Dar’s little leaps and glittering guitar. Once alone on the stage, the benefits of such an intimate venue became most apparent, allowing her to chat as if among friends. And while she herself was mortified when forgetting the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’, we forgave her all too easily. I for one had a similar memory blank at the crucial moment, but the song was just as remarkable, even considering the absence of Ani DiFranco who sings on the version found on My Better Self. Ani was the link to the next song, ‘Two Sides Of The River’, which heralded the return of the band as we were whsiked away to America’s Deep South and the balmy humid environs of New Orleans.
After ‘Beautiful Enemy’ and ‘Mercy Of The Fallen’ unleashed the band’s rockier side, the hauntingly poignant ‘Blue Light Of The Flame’ created a clichéd ‘pin-drop’ atmosphere as the audience clung to the song’s painful truths. Written for songwriter Rachel Bissex who died in 2005 from breast cancer, the album version does not do justice to how wrenching the song must be to sing. Yet with lines as jarringly beautiful as “we were the gods that we blamed” and “so this is where it all ends, with flowers by your bed”, we cannot help but want to hear more. Unable to leave the audience overwhelmed by such heart-rending images, ‘Are You Out There’ and ‘Cool As I Am’ were the chosen closing anthems that chased away the sorrow and swelled to a grand finale with stunning solos by each of the band.
Naturally, we were unlikely to allow her to leave so soon and Dar returned alone to perform the wonderfully narrative February followed by a rare and enchanting performance of ‘We Learned The Sea’. The highlight of the evening for most, however, was the final encore of ‘The Christians & The Pagans’ that was met by rapturous applause before it even began. Throughout the evening and particularly the encores, Dar’s humility and sparkle shone. At no point was there a divide between audience and performer, but instead a sharing of experiences; the fact that one person dominated the conversation and that she happened to be the person on stage with a guitar really didn’t seem to matter.
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