Live Review: Dar Williams w/ Emily Scott Robinson @ The Birchmere, 12/5/21

DarWilliams_Ebru YILDIZ
Dar Williams (Photo by Ebru Yildiz)

Dar Williams returned to The Birchmere, where she’s been playing since 1994, on Sunday evening. As she told the audience during her set, she first played the esteemed venue when she opened for singer-songwriter Bill Morrissey. She also mentioned that she has an interview in a new book that explores the history of the concert hall, All Roads Lead to The Birchmere. She’s currently touring behind I’ll Meet You There, her first album in six years.

The evening began with a half-hour opening set by rising musician Emily Scott Robinson, who was making her first appearance at The Birchmere. Introducing “Cheap Seats,” she talked about “having these dreams,” like making it to The Birchmere, “and not knowing how you’re going to get there,” and working a day job while you’re trying to get your art to take off. 

Over the pandemic, Emily shared, she signed a deal with the label owned by the late John Prine, Oh Boy Records. Her third album, American Siren came out this fall. As she quipped, “every artist in the world that you follow has a new record out.” Hers has made quite a splash, with “Let ‘Em Burn,” being named one of NPR’s top 20 songs of 2021.  This was a real milestone for Emily, who said she just wanted desperately for a long time for someone at NPR to hear her music. She also said that it felt great to “write a song that feels so intimate and personal in a vacuum of a year, and then to share it with people” and find out they share your experiences.

For her second number, Emily played “Things You Learn the Hard Way.” She confessed that most of her own experiences in that vein involved college boyfriends and car maintenance, so she had asked her friends and family to share the lessons they learned. “Hometown Hero,” she shared, was about her cousin, who went to serve in the military in Afghanistan when he was 19. While he was proud of his service and loved the people he served with, she said he was also “broken in ways that he could never heal.” Sadly, he took his own life.

Emily closed her set with “The Time For Flowers,” which she wrote after finishing Amor Towels’s novel A Gentleman in Moscow. The novel, she explained, is about a diplomat who’s held in house arrest, which felt very relatable during the lockdown. The audience gave her set a strong response; during the intermission, a gentleman at my table compared her singing to Alison Krauss.

Watch the official music video for “The Time for Flowers” by Emily Scott Robinson on YouTube:

After intermission, Dar Williams took the stage. She had a guitarist and keyboards player with her; this the first time I’d seen her playing with accompaniment. She began by talking about how, “when I was 20, I was living in Berkeley. I had to see the world through the city.” She said that, at the time, the city had a wide range of views, from just left-of-center to full-throttled Communists. (And, just to be clear, there’s a lot of distance between just left of center and Communist.) As she’s returned to play there over the years, Dar has looked for the traits that drew her to the city all those years ago, and that informs the substance of “Berkeley.”

She described the next tune, “Spring Street,” as “a reverse geography song, a geography I resisted.” After many years living in western Massachusetts, which she said had “its own cool,” she moved to the SoHo neighborhood of New York. By that time, she explained, “SoHo had been tamed,” and she “was concerned that I was going to be tamed.”

At the beginning of the new millennium, a lot of things changed in the music business. This wasn’t just limited, she said, to the new issues with electronic file sharing and the disruption of traditional records, but there were also changes in the community around music. A lot of good folks today, she added, like Melissa Ferrick, are doing important work for artists’ right. “Give It All Away,” she said, was “about a friend who had been having a moment in the world of making art.”

Watch Dar Williams play “Give It All Away” live for Paste Studios on YouTube:

“The Babysitter’s Here,” which she recorded on her first album, has been a staple of Dar’s live performances. She introduced the song as a sort of exploration of a Jungian archetype, one which “thrived in the 70s,” when she was a kid. For this number, her accompanists left the stage, and she played it solo; they returned for the next number.

“Let The Wind Blow” is “inspired by the golden age of exploration.” With typical wry humor, Dar commented that it was, in some ways, a strange time for that golden age to happen, as there was not yet such a thing as bug spray. She described it all as “ill-advised and romantic.”

In addition to being a singer and songwriter, Dar is a published author. A few years ago she put out her first book, What I Learned In A Thousand Towns, which explores how people create community. She brought up one of the stories she’d collected for the book, about a very shy person who had been involved in a planting project and gone on to run for city council. “Little Town” was composed as a reaction to what she did in the book.

The sole cover of the night was “Cathedrals,” by Jay Clifford of the band Jump, Small Children. This was a song that Dar had performed with her band Cry, Cry, Cry, which also included singer-songwriters Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell. Over the pandemic, Richard compiled a live show they performed to raise funds for those in the music business who were struggling. As a coincidence, one of Jay’s bandmates was performing with her.

As she was introducing “Today and Every Day,” Dar mentioned that she saw some folks who had attended her songwriting retreat. She also mentioned that, as a way of offsetting the carbon burned by touring, she gives away her setlist every night to someone who promises to plant a tree. “Today and Every Day” is an optimistic song that channels her optimism about the possibilities for social change.

After “The Great Unknown,” Dar brought it back to an old favorite, the feminist anthem, “Cool As I Am,” and had the audience singing along. To finish the set, she brought Emily back out to sing “Iowa” with her.

For her encore, Dar came out solo and talked about how her career had been boosted when Joan Baez recorded her song, “You’re Aging Well,” and took her on tour. As time as a flat circle, yadda, yadda, yadda, Dar is now the same age that Joan was then, and the song has taken on new meaning and poignancy for her; she even rerecorded it for her latest album.

Dar was in as fine a form as she’s ever been, and it was a lot of fun to see her play as part of band. If you want to catch an artist on the rise, be sure to check out Emily Scott Robinson.

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