The two massive disco balls which hung over the stage were so not Dar Williams. In place presumably for Sunday night's Flaming Lips grand finale to Forecastle Festival 2010, they just wouldn't work for Williams. (By the way, 90% of the disco balls in the US are made here in Louisville).
She unceremoniously appeared onstage before her set for a last minute sound check and then officially appeared moments later to begin her set with The Easy Way off her latest album Promised Land. After the song, she glanced back at the Ohio and said, "If a river boat comes by, I hope it's in the right key." Next she did older favorites Spring Street and If I Wrote You, proving that she sounds as good live as she does on CD, which needless to say is not always the case. Accompanied by keyboardist Bryn Roberts, Williams made a big sound out of just the keys, her voice, and her acoustic guitar, especially on a particularly good version of Are You Out There? She may often be labeled "folk," but that was a slice of bouncy pop perfection.
She returned to Promised Land for Summerday, which introduced as a fictitious town nestled in an idyllic setting. When you hear her speak of being a mother and living in the Hudson Valley of New York state, you get the feeling Summerday is really her town and her life. She also offered personal insights into The Ocean. She started writing the song on her first tour in 1994. On the road, she heard of Kurt Cobain's suicide, and it affected her. Coupled with a trip to the Northwest and watching the Pacific waves whipping the rocks along the coast, she finsihed the song. The recorded version is a building, emotional tale, which is aided wonderfully by John Prine's harmony vocals. Here in concert, she performed it solo - even without Roberts on keyboard. The song still provided an emotional punch and again proved the power of her songwriting.
She asked the crowd what she should play next, and that led to The Babysitter's Here. She sung it with great earnestness. The song never seems to get old for her, and the same could be said for her fans. It is a classic story song, and much of it is true, which somehow makes the song even more telling about Williams' ability to use biograohical stories as the basis for her material.
Sara Watkins (formerly of Nickle Creek and a Forecastle performer herself) joined Williams and Roberts on stage for the rest of the set. Watkins has been opening for Williams recently, but this was the last show on this tour they would be playing together. They did a rousing version of It's Alright, and followed it up with a lesser known Williams song, a cover of a traditional bluegrass/gospel song called Green Pastures, which she promised would appear on an upcoming retrospective compilation CD. Years ago, Williams performed this in concert as part of Cry Cry Cry. Singing with Watkins made this song even more special. Their voices meshed perfectly and even reverently.
The show ended with a poignant version of Iowa. With her good humor, Williams told the crowd to "Sing it for the raw power of Kentucky, but sing 'Iowa'." Since Williams went on at 2:30, it wasn't a huge crowd, and that's too bad.Williams is the perfect compliment in a festival setting to the theatrical bands and the bands that turn it up to 11. She also is arguably one of the best songwriters in popular music today whose music doesn't need volume to gain power.
While her set was only an hour long, the brevity enforced by the festival schedule was the only downside of the show. And while some artists allow little of themselves to show in their songs or uphold an image that they don't live up to offstage, Williams is the genuine article. Somehow, though, her personal songs offer something to listeners; she has an uncanny ability to relate and offer emotional payoffs for listeners in her songs.
She's a rare artist that works as well in a coffee house as she does on the main stage at a huge music festival.