Clubs have personality as much as performers. Take McGonigel's Mucky Duck: The breath of a thousand Anglo-Irish pubs hangs in the air at the modest Norfolk Street venue, hovering among all the bookish, buttery comforts that seem to encourage the behavior that the Brits and Irish are really good at -- drinking. Then there's the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, that cinder-block rock-and-roll playpen on Washington Avenue that's so Spartan and functional it looks like they hose it down after each act.
Dar Williams, a smart singer-songwriter from New England with a devoted folk following, would seem a perfect match for the Mucky Duck -- until you hear her latest album, The Green World, on Razor & Tie Records. Let's just say her new sound is rocking enough for the Satellite Lounge, which is precisely where she's playing.
"I hear the Satellite is mangy," Williams says with a laugh. "I approve of this one."
To re-create her new, high-energy sound, Williams has put together a new, high-energy band: It features guitarist Steuart Smith (Shawn Colvin, Rosanne Cash), keyboardist Rob Hyman (Joan Osborne, The Hooters), bassist Graham Maby (Joe Jackson, Natalie Merchant) and drummer Steve Holley (Paul McCartney, Joe Cocker).
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The band will have a lot to chew on. The Green World contains songs about messianic cults ("And a God Descended"), civil disobedience ("I Had No Right") and female artists ("I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono"). It's a savvy blend of poetry and politics. At a time when so much music is dumbed down for mass consumption, Williams stakes out a high ground of candor and discernment. It's hard to resist lines like these in "Playing to the Firmament": "When did sex get so mean? When did crime get so clean? You know I just can't seem to find the soul in this striving."
Interviewing Williams is like talking with an intelligent and curious friend. We start by talking about "Playing to the Firmament," which is not your average song about the environment.
"Spiritually there's a playfulness that we can use in our culture, to get beyond the market, to get to a democracy that's run by people, not the economy," says Williams. "I feel like a radical saying the system has to shift. But it can be accomplished when people realize they have more power."
Williams does not consider herself a radical. But she's well informed on political issues. The daughter of liberal parents who were educated at Yale and Vassar, Williams performs at fund-raisers and talks knowledgeably about issues like the environment, the diet industry and public radio.
She tends not to do things for women's causes because, as she says, "so many wonderful women are already doing that," including her mother, Marian Ferry, who's active in Planned Parenthood. But get Williams started on diets, and she'll tell you how it has become a $40 billion industry in America. She classifies her physical state as healthy and close to the ground.
"I eat a diet high in sugar, protein and love," says Williams. "I'm the kind of person that believes locally made cookies are better for you than a banana shipped up from Chile."
"I just moved out of Northampton, Massachusetts," she continues. "It's a town filled with people who have prescriptions for health. On certain days, it adds up to a lot of sullen, bony people. I just moved to upstate New York. Now I am surrounded by women who have boobs and hips and kids. They have real lives and real bodies. I knew I came here for a reason. My body is something I live in. I don't need to polish the container all the time."
Houston has been a strong market for Williams thanks, in large part, to heavy airplay on KPFT-FM. Public radio is a subject close to Williams's heart. She took an active role in the Pacifica Radio free speech dispute last summer, even performing at a benefit concert in Berkeley for the station.
"KPFT has been one of the more conservative Pacifica stations," says Williams. "On one hand, they played my music early in Houston. Even the conservative Pacifica stations have alternative stuff going on compared to the commercial stations."
"However, I'm not impressed with what Pacifica's national foundation or the management at KPFA did," she continues. Pacifica board chairwoman "Mary Berry didn't address the fact she hired armed guards at KPFA. Her argument that martial law was imposed because of perceived violence is a lie. It was a display of power. Coming from a theatrical background, I know what the impact of armed guards was at a people's station. It sucked."
Obviously Williams doesn't believe in playing it conservative, whether with politics or with her music.
"I don't mind failing," she points out. "There are many other examples of people having semi-successes, transitional albums that lead to more mature works. Paul Simon's Hearts and Bones was a transition to Graceland. Both albums were risks to find new territory. So in retrospect, Hearts takes on a different kind of meaning. He also wrote Capeman, and it failed. So be it. He's had an erratic history, but I love that he did it. It shows he's an artist, and he doesn't have to do the same thing over and over again."
Williams jokes about coming to a place where she could write a Dar Williams song on demand. Such a song would have certain kinds of metaphors and a dry sense of humor, and it would have some turnaround at the end.
"My soul might revolt, but I'm getting a sense of what the formula would look like," says Williams. "There's a big joke my friend makes whenever a new album of mine comes out. The critics and fans respond either "What happened to our Dar' or "This sounds just like the last album.' So you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.
"You might as well go swinging on the outhouse door without a nightie. I've chosen the latter. I'm out there with a lot of great musicians and feeling self-conscious about my musicianship. But I'm a musician, too, and I'm learning to believe in myself. That gives me courage to follow my own organic tastes."
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