Programming Board brings folksy Dar Williams to Hop tonight

by Joseph Debonis | 11/18/08 3:14am

Dar Williams stops in Hanover as part of her tour promoting her new album,
by Courtesy of / The Dartmouth

These may sound like the folksy ruminations of an insincere political candidate vying for votes on the campaign trail, but they belong to a legitimately respected and talented American: New England musical sensation Dar Williams.

The idiosyncratic and gifted singer-songwriter plays Spaulding Auditorium at the Hopkins Center for the Arts tonight as part of her tour promoting "Promised Land" (2008), her seventh studio album, which was released on Sept. 9. The Programming Board booked Williams to play at Dartmouth.

"In a way, that's what the album title [Promised Land] is about," Williams continued on her web site. "I found myself making a distinction between the Promised Land we claim and the actual promise of the land that we try to live up to."

Williams' trademark synthesis of pop melodies and hyper-literate, deeply insightful lyrics garnered rave reviews for "Promised Land."

The album's happy marriage of pop and folk has been largely attributed to the polished production of Brad Wood, with whom Williams is collaborating for the first time.

Wood, a producer and singer in his own right, won a Grammy Award in 1999 for his work on "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," the Canadian musical that follows a transsexual punk rocker who comes from East Berlin and tours the States with her band.

Wood has also collaborated with the likes of Liz Phair, Ben Lee, Tortoise and Pete Yorn.

Bolstered by her collaboration with Wood, Williams' new album features appearances by Suzanne Vega, Marshall Crenshaw, noted multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz and Better Than Ezra drummer Travis McNabb.

Covers of Fountains of Wayne's "Troubled Times" off of "Utopia Parkway" (1999) and "Midnight Radio" from "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (1999) complement Williams' own soulful and introspective tracks.

Williams got her musical start early in life, learning guitar at nine and penning her first original song two years later. The artist credits her parents, who she has often referred to as "liberal and loving," for encouraging her interest in music during her childhood in Chappaqua, N.Y.

After majoring in theater and religion at Wesleyan University, Williams dabbled in directing theater and opera before enjoying a stint as a stage manager for the Opera Company of Boston.

Looking to find her own voice as a performer and songwriter, Williams spent much of the 1990s in folksy Northampton, Massachusetts, long considered one of the major musical and artistic hubs of the Northeast.

She quickly became a celebrity on coffeehouse, college and festival circuits, even traveling and recording with Joan Baez. On her way to an independent career as a musician she established a loyal fan base, especially on public radio and the Internet, earning critics' respect for the honest profundity of her lyrics.

Williams frequently draws inspiration from and provides commentary on a wide range of political, environmental, religious and social issues, from troubled adolescence and gender identity to class divide and commercialism.

These messages are consistent with the values of Dartmouth's all-female acapella group, the Rockapellas.

"Her songs fit right in with the mission of the Rockapellas -- we were created to spread awareness about social injustice through song," said Stephanie Morales '09, a senior member of the "Rocks" and a fan of Williams since her freshman year.

"We actually used to sing one of her songs, 'Christians and the Pagans,'" she said.

Ann Elise DeBelina '10, Programming Board concert chair, who led the team that booked Williams, is excited to see the concert attract both students and community members to the Hop.

"Dar Williams has always been a favorite of the residents of [the Upper Valley]. She is a folksy storyteller, a mesmerizing performer and can really connect with her audience," said DeBelina.

If you were previously unfamiliar with Williams' work, you may be hesitant to spend a Tuesday evening in Spaulding Auditorium. If the devotion of Williams' fan base is not enough to change your mind, however, DeBelina offers her own personal plug for the 21st century's Joni Mitchell: "For me, listening to Dar is always like relaxing on a big, comfy couch with a steaming cup of tea and opening the weathered pages of your favorite book to re-read it for the 26th time."

Dar Williams performs tonight in Spaulding Auditorium in the Hopkins Center at 8 p.m.