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In Review: Dar Williams

Mortal City 20th Anniversary Tour

Dar Williams
Dar Williams
Public Domain

Celebrated singer-songwriter Dar Williams is both a captivating entertainer and social educator. She weaves stories about our country’s changing culture within and between her songs as she visits with the audience in a style that appears casual while cementing a deep rapport with her fans.

Williams, presented by AMP Concerts, performed in Albuquerque at the Soouth Broadway Cultural Center on Jan. 7th as part of a tour that marks the 20th Anniversary of her landmark Mortal City album. She fronted an exceptional 4-piece band consisting of electronic keyboards, electric guitar and mandolin, drums, and featured Williams on acoustic guitar and vocals. On this tour, Williams has invited a local poet or author to open every show around the country. In Albuquerque, the crowd was treated to a the work of Jessica Helen Lopez, who was enthusiastically received throughout her set.

Williams’ engagement with her audience is as memorable as the music itself. Her commentary stitched the songs of Mortal City together with the combination of a teaching and storytelling style that guides us to see and feel the America she travels through. This process ranges from observations about smalls towns and farmers in the Midwest to signs of heroin behind the eyes of the youth in the Pacific Northwest. “I got to see a lot of landscapes through the lens of Pierce Pettis’s song "Family” she said about the inclusion of the only song she didn't write for Mortal City. The song includes the lyrics, “Can you fix this/ It’s a broken heart … Let your love cover me/ Like a pair of angel’s wings/ You are my family.”

Musically, the emotional center point of the evening came with the song "This Was Pompeii." Underlining the theme of a mortal city, this number recalls the scenes and scientific accounting of the destruction of Pompeii by the Mt. Vesuvius volcano in 79 CE. The band created a hauntingly moody and simultaneously gorgeous arrangement behind this story-song.

Williams invited the entire theater to join her on "Iowa," a song about traveling while ill in the Midwest. She followed this number with the popular and raucous "The Christians and the Pagans," telling the story of a celebration dinner between family members that concludes with a collision between traditional and fringe religious beliefs and practices. This song includes the lyric, “The magic is in the learning."

The band also rocked out as they played "As Cool as I Am," demonstrating their versatility and musical range. The mood in the theater was both adoring and appreciative throughout the evening. Williams could have gone on for hours and the audiences would not have moved an inch. She closed with the song that made her famous, "The Babysitter’s Here," a poignant coming of age number that recounts the relationship and life lessons that came through her relationship with "the best babysitter."
For an encore, she came back onstage and the band revved up her rockin’ tribute to Yoko Ono, "I Won’t Be Your Yoko Ono." It was a triumphant ending.

Dar Williams has released 12 records over the course of her career. She is a singer, songwriter, mother, feminist, college professor, activist and visionary for the reinvention of the American city.

Douglas Cohen is a culture writer and Essayist based in Corrales, New Mexico.

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