While other parts of the country deal with record-breaking heat and wildfires, the DMV has actually had a relatively moderate summer. As I sit here on Independence Day writing this review, my AC is off and my windows are open. This made for a perfect night for outdoor music yesterday evening at Bethesda’s Strathmore Music Center, where folk artist Dar Williams appeared.
Like many venues, the Strathmore is working through putting on shows in the (post-)pandemic world. They’ve moved the performances outdoors, under an awning, and artists are playing two shows — an early and a late set. Dar complimented the venue’s efforts, saying that concerts are a work in progress, and that she felt the Strathmore was doing as good a job with it as she’s seen.
Saturday’s show gave a sense of the shape of Dar’s career, present and future. She announced that, this fall, she’ll release her first album in six years, I’ll Meet You Here, and she shared one of her new songs. She also recounted the story of how she broke through as an artist, when she was picked by Joan Baez to duet on her song “You’re Aging Well.” Written about how she had, at about the age of 25, unwittingly set up her 27-year-old boyfriend with a 20-year-old woman, the song is a playful take on the idea of losing a man to a younger woman. At the time, Dar said, Baez was “the age I am now.”
When the two folksingers performed together, they hit it off, and Baez invited Dar to open for her on a tour of Europe. That, Dar said, was “when everything changed for me.” At that point, Dar, who came out of the Western Massachusetts folk scene, became a national touring act.
Relationships are, for Dar, like for many songwriters, a theme she came back to later in the show, when she played “Something to Get Through” for “anyone who’s wanted to say the perfect right right thing to friends after a breakup.” Nature is another of her central concerns. Introducing “The Mercy of the Falling,” she told the audience about how her father would show her the constellations at night and explain the Greek myths behind them. Greek mythology, Dar noted, doesn’t have a moral point; things just happen, which she called a good lesson to learn for a career in music. Dar also played “The Beauty of the Rain.”
Stream The Beauty of the Rain by Dar Williams on Spotify:
Dar writes beautiful songs, songs that are often infused with folksy humor. The audience got a taste of that when she abandoned her jacket before beginning her set, saying “I think we’re going to do this right away.” Poking fun at herself, she joked, “I’m not trying to provocative,” and, as she struggled a bit with the jacket, she continued, “I’d make a terrible stripper!”
That streak of humor was evident in many of Dar’s, like “The Babysitter’s Here:” the babysitter’s boyfriend is described as wearing ripped jeans with an American flag on the butt. After her opening number, “Fishing in the Morning,” she acknowledged a young person who had gotten up and danced, saying, “I’m glad we have an interpretive dancer here.” Dar can go from hilarious to heartwarming in a moment, and she did, talking about a video of an old show in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania with children dancing. “We all have that in ourselves,” she said, but “we lie to ourselves and say we lost it.”
Dar clearly has a soft spot for young people. Midway through the show, she acknowledged that several students from her songwriting retreat, “Writing a Song That Matters,” were in attendance. She described her students as “the most straight ahead, committed” people, and she spoke of a young woman named Moira whose mother brought her. As the retreat went on, Moira’s mother eventually left her to experience the retreat on her own, which really touched Dar, as parents love to see their kids create and accomplished. She dedicated “The One Who Knows” to those students.
In the best traditions of live music, Dar threw a bone to the local audience with “I Had No Right.” Some time ago, she worked with Congressman Jamie Raskin on a project to create a new state song for Maryland. Although they didn’t get very far in the competition, she learned a lot about Maryland, including the story of the Barrigans and the Catonsville Nine, a group of antiwar activists during Vietnam.
Dar’s most beloved song is “Iowa,” which one attendee called for. She demurred, hinting that it would come later. Having reached an agreement with the audience to forego leaving the stage and returning for the encore, she encouraged them to join in singing with her. Her humor was on display as the closed the show with “The Christians and the Pagans,” which she described as a “winter seasonal favorite.”
If you want to hear beautiful songs that come with a heavy dose of charm, Dar will be returning to the area to play The Birchmere on Dec. 5.