If I tipped you off to a great new album from an under-the-radar artist from the world of Folk, you might throw the word hippie at me. If I dropped the knowledge that Richard Thompson and Jim Lauderdale were involved in this album, you could change that word to hipster. If I then added that you’d also be getting a taste of Jill Sobule and The Hooters, you may very well accuse me using my time machine to travel from the early 90s.
At that point I’d stop being obtuse and tell you to check your cyncism and take the time to broaden your horizons. Folkie, hip, timeless Dar Williams is one of the best artists you’re not listening to yet, and that needs to change.
She is on top form with “Emerald”, her polished and heartfelt ninth studio record (out May 12th). After moving on from Razor & Tie records after a twenty year stint, Williams did what all the kids are doing and crowdsourced her current album through pledgemusic.com, roadtripped across the country to record tracks around the schedules of collaborators like Sobule, Suzzy and Lucy Wainwright Roche, and The Milk Carton Kids, and stopped in Nashville long enough to absorb the cool that is songwriting legend Jim Lauderdale, with whom she examines marriage in the delicious country-ish song “Slippery Slope” (any song about a relationship in which one partner cheerfully admits they can be “a horse’s ass” should become a wedding classic).
“Emerald” kicks off with a sincere steel guitar-tinged acknowledgement of friendship, “Something To Get Through”, Williams’ warm, nonthreatening voice offering support for the rough times we all have to temporarily endure. After that, things get peppy, really peppy, with “FM Radio” – a song your rollerskating Virginia Slims-sneaking older sister or aunt would have sung into her hairbrush. Think Avril Levigne’s “Girlfriend” with a touch of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and just a dusting of the Bay City Rollers – a unholy alliance if there ever was one – and even a mention of the late, great dj Alison Steele. It is completely unironic, and ergo, this one might be solely for the baby boomers. (Hey, kids, feel free to Google the lyrics. Did you know Chaz Bono’s parents were singers?)
Dar Williams hardly has time to be solo-ing into the mirror, though; “Emerald” is a reflection of some of her real-life concerns: “Girl of the World” was written for the students at the Our Little Roses girls’ school in Honduras, of which she is a supporter, and she makes Joe Strummer’s “Johnny Appleseed” fresh and topical (take his advice about ‘if you want the honey, don’t be killin’ the bees’ as literally or as figuratively as you choose). And did we need another ode to the people of New York? Well, yes, when it is done this beautifully by Williams and frequent collaborator Bryn Roberts.
So, if you want a taste of intelligent, adult alternative folk, buy “Emerald”.
The real treat, however, is to see Williams live. She performs in intimate venues – I did say you hadn’t heard of her yet, remember?- occasionally with a band backing her up, but more likely relying on the fantastic keyboard/vocal accompaniment of Roberts. Sometimes she is simply alone on stage with a guitar that almost looks too big for her petite frame; regardless, Williams holds the entire room in sway, connecting with a crowd that usually ranges anywhere from madly devoted to intellectually curious, and you have no choice but to instantly warm right back up to her. Williams comes across as … how do I convey this properly and respectfully… the type of brainy, almost dorky girl you met in college, an ancient literature major or such, that is so delightful and capable and sincere that, next thing you know, you’re volunteering to help her with whatever cause she supports. That thoughtfulness comes across in her interaction with fans, both after the show and onstage. Whether speaking personally about a brief and confusing dip into adolescent Christianity (“Teen For God”), confiding the wisdom gained from talking to seasoned rock stars (“Mercy of the Fallen”), kicking off a cheerful sing-along ( “Iowa”, “The Babysitter’s Here”, many others) or even chiding herself for attempting an entire album themed on mythology, “cause that’s a popular idea” she once told a London crowd, shaking her head with a smile (“In the Time of Gods”), her stage patter is often hilarious and always fresh – I have had the pleasure of catching many live shows and I have yet to hear her repeat much of anything. This lyrical illumination is not only funny, but helpful. Bring your thesaurus, your hairbrush, and get thee to a live show.
May 03 Mountain Stage @ Culture Center – Charleston, WV
May 06 The Grey Eagle – Asheville, NC
May 07 The Arts Center – Carrboro, NC
May 08 Eddie’s Attic – Atlanta, GA
May 09 City Winery – Nashville, TN
May 14 Infinity Hall Hartford – Hartford, CT
May 15 Sawyer Theatre at the Egg – Albany, NY
May 16 The First Parish Church – Cambridge, MA
May 17 Daryl’s House – Pawling, NY
May 21 Birmingham, UK The Glee Club
May 23 Belfast, IRE Errigle Inn
May 24 Dublin, IRE The Workmans Club
May 26 Camden Town, London, UK The Jazz Cafe
May 28 Liverpool, UK Arts Club
May 29 Otley, UK Korks
May 30 Krefeld, GER Kulturfabrik
Jun 01 Brighton, UK Komedia
Jun 11 New York, NY City Winery
Jun 13 New York, NY City Winery
Jun 13 New York, NY City Winery
Jun 19 Geneva, NY Smith Opera House
Jun 20 Toronto, ON Hugh’s Room
Jun 25 Fairfield, CT StageOne
Jun 26 Philadelphia, PA World Cafe Live
Jun 27 Annapolis, MD Rams Head Tavern (early)
Jun 27 Annapolis, MD Rams Head Tavern (late)
Jun 28 Leesburg, VA Tally Ho Theatre
“Emerald” released May 12 (UK) and May 18 (Europe) on Bread and Butter Records
A former ABC National, Dallas and Atlanta radio personality, Martina O'Boyle is now making movies and covering culture in London, Dublin, and as far in Europe as the cheapie flights will take her, for Pop Culture Beast.