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Review: Dar Williams and Katie Herzig at the Clifton Center

November 29, 2008 by · 2 comments

Roger Conner Jr.

Photo: HippieDude

Two of my dear friends and I attended a memorable concert by Dar Williams and her guest opening artist, Katie Herzig at the Clifton Center in Louisville, KY on Sunday evening, Nov. 23, 2008. We left the Eifler Theatre pleased, carrying with us a feeling of artsy and poetic fun combined with a spirit of humane longing for transcendence and an authentic connection to romantic existence.  All of this had been conveyed to us through the inventive, disarming performances of these sincere, gifted, and charming women. Oh, did I also mention we had fun?

Over the course of the performances there were four women on the stage at various times and in varying combinations.  The opening performer, Katie Herzig, and two extraordinary women musicians, Jordan and Clare we shall know them by since I could not catch their last names when Katie introduced them, and of course the feature act of the evening, Dar Williams, who played alone for the most part but availed herself of Katie and her accompanists on several well chosen songs.

At the opening of the show, Katie with acoustic guitar, Jordan who played a variety of instruments including electric guitar, accordion and ukulele and sounded great with all of them, and Clare who played cello both bowed and pizzicato, walked on stage and immediately disarmed the audience with their charm and sincerity.  The word disarming is very descriptive of Katie’s lyrical songwriting, often described as “quirky” and the combination of beauty, irony, cuteness, poetic structure of imaginative metaphors and deeply felt emotion in the sound of her voice made for a funny, funky, charming, and touching performance.  An instant sense of “these women are so like us” intimacy on the part of the audience is developed, but as the songs are delivered the talent of the three women is revealed.  Many individual audience members begin to realize that in poetic imagination on the part of Katie herself, and in sheer musical talent on the part of the other two women, these women are not like most of us in the sense that they are gifted musical artists.

Most of the songs Katie performed on stage were from her “Apple Tree” album, and the metaphor of the apple tree was used in at least two of her songs, “Songbird” and her imaginative and disarmingly cute and very funny song “Forevermore” which she introduced as being based on a children’s song.  It was a song that many in the audience seemed familiar with (including my friends) but which I was not.

These two songs as well as many others written by Katie capture a mood of unrequited love, delayed love and the transitory nature of love, especially young dreamy love. The fragile, bright lightness of the images of songbirds in the shelter of the apple tree are her allegorical reference to her music which provides sustenance, shelter and beauty, and her as the songbird, obligated to deliver her songs as much for herself as a potential way of connection to others.  It is an allegory with a long history in music and literature, the lonesome willing minstrel delivering songs of feeling and transcendent mystical imaginings.   Katie’s own need for romantic love and closeness in her life are always present in her heart, however, as she sings I am a songbird, singing out your window, telling stories in the shade, and I can’t fly away no, I can’t fly away.”  Her method of dissipating the pain is her use of inventively ironic humor and a young woman’s natural gift for hope (“But the world can spin so madly, and love can hurt so badly, and stories end so sadly, but this is not the end”, because “You still have my heartache, I still have your sweater, things they will get better, oh, but not today”).  Katie Herzig disarms the cynicism and boredom of daily life for her audience by converting it into funky fun, colorful images and ironic,  touching sometimes childlike phrases, not childish, but childlike, and holding out a childlike sense of hope, wonder and imagination.  Her performance was excellent, sincere, funny, sweet and touching, her accompanists were gifted and creative in their use of instruments and voice in helping Katie Herzig deliver her little art pieces, and the experience of seeing Katie live was an experience that left one feeling a bit like a kid again, a bit hopeful, and at least for awhile in love with the idea of artsy quirky romance.  

After such a varied, enjoyable and memorable opening act, it was hard to believe that we still had the featured artist to come.  During a brief intermission, many people went out in the hall to buy Katie Herzig  CD’s because they wanted to get to speak to her and have a tangible record of what they had just heard (although I must say that Katie live is an experience that is so much more than Katie recorded, although her recordings are wonderfully done).

Once everyone reseated themselves Dar Williams took to the stage. While Katie Herzig had been an unknown quantity for many in the theatre, Dar Williams was known and highly regarded to many of her fans present.  She has performed in Louisville numerous times, and in some ways this concert would be in the mold of a reunion and sharing of memories, both personal and musical.  While some of the material from the newly released “Promised Land” album was new to some of the audience, the themes would be, with few noticeable exceptions, familiar.

Dar Williams is in so many ways more than just an “adult contemporary” artist, the category often used to define her.  She is an adult, contemporary woman.  Now in her late 30’s, she was in so many ways influenced artistically, socially, politically and philosophically by the cultural earthquake that occurred at about the time of her birth.

By the time Dar and her contemporaries (of whom I am one) came of age the loud part of the cultural revolution was over, but the influence of the late 1960’s would echo in the artistic soul of millions of people for decades to come.  Dar captures all the major themes:  She is liberal, but in a populist rather than central command socialist sort of way, she is environmentalist, but not willing to give up completely on new technology and endorse a radical neo-primitivism, she is mildly androgynous and not hung up on gender roles or glamour. Her photos often are a bit obvious in attempting to capture a relaxed tolerant integrity, but it must be said that Dar Williams is “real” in this role unlike many who attempt it.  And now Dar is a mother, who like so many of her contemporaries delayed child bearing until relatively late in life, and thus is somewhat awed and fascinated by what for her is still a new experience and a new role. 

Dar dove right in and opened her Clifton Center set with “Calling The Moon” and I will return to discussing this song in a moment.

Next came a song capturing her “post hippie” upbringing, “The Baby Sitter”, an ode to an older (seventeen year old) baby sitter whom she adored and hero worshipped in her childhood, the song is touching, funny, and almost a testament to her major childhood influences.  The song brought  back memories to those in the audience who are of a similar age to Dar, and most of the audience was at least as old as Dar if not older.  I am not sure the song really worked with the younger folks in the audience.

The demographic issue of age was perhaps more apparent to me than to many because I was in the company of younger friends (they are in their 20’s, I in my 40’s), and I had noticed on the opening song “Calling The Moon” that Dar’s poetic metaphors seemed a bit too arcane in some ways to make an immediate connection to my young friends.  Calling The Moon” is obscure in some ways even by Dar’s normal standards.  The song seems to be making a call to a more intuitive way of thinking and even living.  The moon or lunar force has always been considered a force that is less rational, sometimes even completely irrational (as in “lunacy”).  Dar is in certain ways prone to mystical allegorical poetics, releasing the less logical but more intuitive forces in words.  This is why in some cases, it is best to absorb the sound and words at the time of hearing and study them later.  My experience has usually been that the value of Dar’s songs will show through on a later reading or a later hearing.  Sometimes at least some members of the audience do not have the patience to wait.  Some may feel that the songwriter should have revealed more in her wording of the song.  But giving too much detail in song destroys so much of its allegorical power.  Like a joke, if it has to be explained in detail to be enjoyed, it really didn’t work.

The power of words is a long running theme in Dar Williams’ songs, and one of her most beautiful odes to the power of words is the song she performed in her set that night, “If I Wrote You”.  The song almost begs the question:  Can words be a more revelatory communication than even physical intimacy?  Just as with intimacy, a major fear is revealing too much of oneself, the fear that the beloved will see or hear more than the partner wants revealed.  First the realization of revelation:  I never thought you were the letter writing type, so now I see the words you chose, the way you write”.  Only those with a high respect for the power of words actually use “the way you write” as a method of sensing another person, a beloved one.  The beloved herself then thinks about writing back, but realizes that she is afraid of revealing too much with her words, and chooses instead to remain distant, unrevealed: “And if I wrote you, if I wrote you, you would know me, and you would not write me again.”  This is the sort of touching, revealing line that Dar Williams is such an artist at writing, the kind of line that brings tears to the eyes of her fans.  She is describing a love that is being allowed to go unconsummated in the deepest spiritual and intellectual sense.  She will repeat her theme of the power of words in a song delivered later that evening, “The Easy Way”, in which we hear of the not so uncommon occurrence of a partner threatening suicide to retain power over her lover.  Her rival is not willing to be so flippant with words to get her own way, “No I never took heavy words for granted, and I never took undeserved advantage, no I never took the easy way, so why don’t you make it easy on me now?”

Late in the show, Dar made what was obviously (by her own admission) an unplanned change in the set, and performed what is surely one of her most powerful songs, “After All”.  She brought Katie Herzig and her accompanists back onto the stage, giving Katie a “lyric sheet” from which to read the lines of the song.  After All” is a song that is so precise in allegory and metaphor that it can be understood clearly as a journey into depression, reflection, and finally recovery.  How can one describe thoughts of suicide in a moving and poetic way?   Dar does it thusly:  And when I chose to live, there was no joy it’s just a line I crossed, it wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost, so I was neither lost nor found.”    On recovery, the simple but elegant line, “Now I’m sleeping fine, sometimes the truth is like a second chance.”  And in a brilliant and beautiful inversion of the famous but sometimes abused “Choose Life” slogan, Dar finishes the song with a great existential statement “And now I laugh at how the world changed me, I think life chose me, after all.”

So in one of those magically unplanned moments that make live performances worth attending, Dar chose to perform her masterpiece.  I still wonder what Katie Herzig thought as she read her lyric sheet!  A gifted songwriter, she must have instantly felt the beauty and power of the song.  I know that I can vividly remember the first time I heard it to this day.

Dar of course had to sing her satirical holiday classic, “The Christians and the Pagans”, a hilarious but moving description of a Thanksgiving dinner shared by conventional Christian family members and some guests of other religious persuasion, the song is a testament to Dar’s belief in tolerance.  It was wildly popular with the crowd. 

After a heartfelt ovation at the close, Dar Williams returned to the stage for one encore, and in an excellent choice she sang another song hugely popular with her fans, the sweet, touching and beautifully written song “When I Was A Boy”.  The song captures that great and wonderful age in every human life before we actually develop “gender” in its social/sexual sense.  Here Dar again captures something that the young takes for granted, something that came only after the cultural revolution of the 1970’s, that being the full acceptance of androgyny in a “gender neutral” cultural and social setting.  In language concerning gender, most people born before 1950 or so speak an entirely different language than most of us born after.  It is here again that Dar is a woman of her times in a uniquely relaxed and sincere way. 

Dar gave an excellent performance at the Clifton Center, made only better by some last minute spontaneous changes and the addition of Katie Herzig and her little group on several of the songs, an excellent example of why live shows are a unique opportunity to see and hear the unexpected.  Dar will almost certainly come back to Louisville, and her fans will be there.   She is being heard by younger, newer fans too.  I know that my two dear friends and I greatly enjoyed both Katie and Dar’s performance, and left with the feeling that we had been present at something special.

A few words about the venue:  Part of what made the concert so special was where it was held.  The Clifton Center is located in East Louisville, KY on the corner of Payne St and Frankfort Ave.  It is a very pretty neighborhood, inhabited by people who support inclusive and cosmopolitan ideas, and a pleasure to be in.  The Clifton Center itself is housed in a former Catholic Elementary school and the architecture of the building displays this heritage, a very aesthetically pleasing building with a lot of history and character, a pretty, endearing building.  The Eifler Theatre where the above described concert was held seats 500 people and is comfortable with good acoustics and easy viewing for all (including balcony seating).  If you have not been to the Clifton/Crescent Hill area, or the Clifton Center, find an excuse to go.  It is well worth seeing, with great restaurants, beautiful homes with character, and of course, the Clifton Center, one of my favorite spots in Louisville, even though I discovered the place only about two years ago.

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