Dar Williams at Lawrence Arts Center, review by Brian DeSpain
The last time Dar Williams visited Lawrence, Kansas, the 2016 US presidential election produced an unconventional result, “but we won’t go there,” she remarked, and the Inauguration was a couple weeks away.
Musicians converging for the Folk Alliance International conference down the road in Kansas City the following month all seemed to have protest songs ready for their showcase performances.
This tour swing through Lawrence, supporting I’ll Meet You Here [released 1 October 2021], Williams seems less folk musician activist and more observer. And it seems like the changing of the seasons and her current visit to the city have colored those reflections and observations.
All but one of the tracks on the new album were represented by Williams at the Lawrence Arts Center show on October 21. Williams started the set with the first song “Time, Be My Friend” from the new album, followed by a song of a former place she lived, “Berkeley”
Some of Williams’ observations at first seemed random. With her background in urban planning lending to some of those insights and comparisons, as well as the diversity of her geographic residency through her career, from New England to Berkeley and to Soho, the connections become a little more apparent.
The narratives she espoused between some of the songs left for things to ponder. In the lead up to the next song “Spring Street” she stated New York City doesn’t have the rugged snobbery of New England because they don’t have cars. Consider all the things you need to be properly prepared for road travel and the thought becomes plausible.
And from a personal experience in New England where she learns of a bear in the neighborhood, it was met with nonchalance, “In New England, bears have names,“ she quipped to audience laughter.
Williams commented that “You Give It All Away” was “written for a friend having a moment.” After “Magical Thinking” the narrative became deeply reflective and nostalgic leading up to “The Babysitter’s Here.”
She reflected on the crisp autumn air of childhood in the 1970s, black & white TVs with “creature features” watched while mom and dad were out on the town in their “young parenty” days. This time of year brings back those memories for Williams.
After “Let the Winds Blow” the deep dish is served about Lawrence as a special city, for the arts and for living.
Williams’ earliest connection to Lawrence was born out of an invitation by Bob McWilliams to perform a house concert. Many in the audience provided a response of verbally acknowledging him. She also highlighted the role of the Lawrence Arts Center in the community.
“Little Town” can be about many places. Williams spoke of the “positive proximity” of Lawrence, where people live close enough to each other that they have to work together even if they don’t like each other. And she added, “There’s a hometown pride with a worldly welcome.”
In the opening set by Heather Maloney, she also made some positive observations of Lawrence as a music community. This was Maloney’s first visit to the town. Find more on that part of the evening here: Interview: Heather Maloney at Lawrence Arts Center 10/21
“There are so many things you can do when you recognize each other’s skill sets,” Williams explained. “Observing the categories is which people organize and cooperate began the story arc leading to her book What I Found in a Thousands Towns [5 September 2017].
Williams’ comparison of similarity between Lawrence and New England lent intrigue. When you delve into the history of the town, it was settled by abolitionists to thwart the possibility of Kansas becoming a slave state. The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed for popular sovereignty to decide. So it was settlers from New England, many from Massachusetts, who organized the community.
Next, a cover of “Cathedrals” by Jump, Little Children. The cellist and guitarist from that band, Ward Williams, is in Dar William’s touring band. Williams mentioned Jump, Little Children frontman Jay Clifford performed the song solo as a fundraiser to save performance stages, a cause dear to her heart.
Back in April 2020, Clifford stepped onto the stage of the Charleston Music Hall in the bands’ hometown to raise awareness for the MusiCares Covid-19 Relief Fund. The video was filmed using a 360 degree camera for viewers to witness the emptiness of the venue to present the devastation to performing arts across the country.
In between the “Mercy of the Fallen” and “I Never Knew” Williams reflected on the divisions and polarization in American society. She weighed in, “The old school way still counts” of neighborliness and kindness in our communities.
Nearing the end of the performance, Williams provided an upbeat anthem for environmental happy warriors with “Today and Every Day.” She recounted her time working on an environmental blog in 2010 and the willing reception by the National Renewal Energy Lab to share cutting edge information for a “greener” future.
Williams rounded out the set with a fanbase favorite “Cool As I Am” followed by encores of “Iowa” and “Aging Well”
For locals who attended the show, there were strong reasons to go home with a spring in there step about their community and for outsiders to consider what makes a community great.
Find more information about Dar Williams, and tour dates here: https://www.darwilliams.com