Dar at the Noir

I am more than mildly infatuated with Dar Williams. (There.) My general (if limited) pattern is to fall for the blonde and tall, and she is an elfin brunette, but that hasn’t stopped me from tumbling off cliffs of emotion and devotion when I hear her sing, especially live. In spite of her hair colour, size and marital status – not to mention mine – I might be tempted to propose lifetime commitment to Ms. Williams if I were ever to actually meet her. I guess I’ll just buy more albums. She is funny, wildly smart, terribly serious, and sings from a deep well of sadness that informs even the wittiest of songs.

My bride and I saw just enough at her short FolkFest stint Sunday to convince me to drive up the road last night to the Black Sheep Inn in bustling Wakefield, Quebec. I dragged five friends with me, two of whom were local Wakefield yokels designated to fight off the envious so that we latecomers could get a seat au Mouton Noir, that wee haven for musicians and them as loves ‘em. Dan Frechette, the opener, was a pleasant Manitoban surprise, engaging and charmingly geeky and a very good writer to boot. Imagine (visually, at least) Eugene Levy with trimmed eyebrows, a clear singing voice and crisp guitar slinging from the left side. I’d see him again.

And Frechette was nearly as anxious to listen to Dar Williams as the rest of us. It was a love-in. The Black Sheep is a cramped venue in a tiny village that attracts the best songwriters, singers and pickers from all over North America. Whether it’s the beautiful view of the Gatineau River and its hills, the loyal listening folk or the gracious management, it’s become a magnet. Williams strongly credits le Mouton for helping her regain her performing mojo. And what a gift that is.

She’s a better guitar player than I’d realized, her voice is full of range and feeling and my goodness can she write! Her songs are often too complex or too subtle, I imagine, for her to ever get much pop radio play, and her style is distinctive enough that she is not easy to cover. Some of her early songs were occasionally so dense and manic that they were hard to take in all at once. They rewarded close listening, to be sure, and now she slows them down just enough to make them accessible to first-time hearers. I noticed this with her deliberate and witty rendition of one of her fans’ faves, “The Babysitter’s Here”. It’s a signature Williams piece, containing childhood sweetness, adult wit and a scorching way of seeing.

And as she has done so many times, she had me snuffling and heaving at the shoulder. “February” kills me every time, and “The End of the Summer” is one of the most melancholy and moving bits of song I’ve ever heard. Newer pieces – the haunting “Blue Light of the Flame” from her most recent album, My Best Self, “Mercy of the Fallen” and an inspired cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” – remind me that I really know only Williams’ first three albums from the mid- to late-90s. She’s a wonderful artist. (She’s also written a couple of young-adult novels, for heaven’s sake, campaigns earnestly for environmental protection and also fit in the birth of a son.) I have some shopping to do. (But worry not, Dar, no stalking for me.)

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