Live Review: Dar Williams @ Bush Hall.

Dar Williams at Bush Hall in London on 5 March 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

Dar Williams at Bush Hall in London on 5 March 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

The elegant Bush Hall venue in west London is adorned with red velvet curtains and glistening chandeliers, an ornately carved ceiling overhead and a soft carpet underfoot. So, what would it take to dwarf such grandeur? The answer, it transpires, is the songs and stories of US songstress Dar Williams.

She walks on stage alone, with a big smile and a guitar, and from the moment her first chords ring through the venue, we are whisked away on a trip down weird and wonderful pathways. We visit the tumultuous landscape of the Pacific north west one moment, the world of sinister social experiments another and the delicate emotions of childhood disappointments the next.

There’s no new album to promote – Dar’s last release was 2012’s ‘In The Time Of Gods’, a record largely thematically shaped by Greek mythology. But after a couple of decades of recording and touring, she has easily garnered enough of a following to sell out a UK tour without the need for new material.

Dar Williams at Bush Hall in London on 5 March 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

Dar Williams at Bush Hall in London on 5 March 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

As such, tonight’s setlist spans her impressive back catalogue, displaying her breadth of subject and emotion, from the poignant yearning of ‘If I Wrote You’, to the disturbing tale of ‘Buzzer’, which was inspired by the infamous 1960s Milgram obedience experiment in the States, involving electric shocks.

Dar’s powerful voice and imaginative songs grasp the audience’s undivided attention – there’s a notable absence of chatter and clinking of glasses that can so often trouble the quiet numbers of solo acoustic acts. But it’s her conversation between songs that sends the entertainment factor through the roof. Witty anecdotes and banter with the crowd really make this a show, not just a concert. It’s easy to see why people return again and again to her gigs when, on top of great performances, there’s such warmth, insight and humour exuding from the stage and carried throughout the room.

She clearly tries to accommodate her audience’s wishes too, taking requests for songs and even claiming to be wearing a specific dress for a fan who, it turned out, couldn’t make it.

Dar Williams at Bush Hall in London on 5 March 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

Dar Williams at Bush Hall in London on 5 March 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

Recent tracks given an airing tonight include ‘I Am The One Who Will Remember Everything’. Older songs, such as ‘The Babysitter’s Here’, ‘Iowa (Travelling lll)’ and in particular ‘The Ocean’, with its rapturous sing-a-long chorus, have fans dropping their British reserve and joining in enthusiastically.

Having had the chance to chat with Dar before the show, I had slipped in a request for possibly her weirdest song, ‘Flinty Kind Of Woman’ from debut album ‘The Honesty Room’. She laughed and said she’d try to practise it before the show, as it wasn’t one she plays live very much. Indeed, she delivered a thundering performance of it towards the end of the night and the room erupted with delight.

Dar Williams at Bush Hall in London on 5 March 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

Dar Williams at Bush Hall in London on 5 March 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

She is quickly brought back for an encore and, after jokingly striking a yoga pose so that people can get their photographic needs out of the way, she launches into the tender classic ‘You’re Aging Well’. She introduces the track as “the song that brought me over the Atlantic for the first time, because I sang it with Joan Baez”. This serves as a timely reminder that Dar has performed with many greats of the folk music world. Tonight’s show and her sold out tour suggest she may soon, if not already, be considered one of those greats, too.

The encore ends with ‘The Hudson’ and the lights go up. As I leave the venue I see Dar entrenched at the merchandise table, surrounded by fans, signing CDs and happily chatting away.

The splendour of both venue and show makes this one of those gigs you know you’ll be smiling about long after you’ve caught the last tube home.

Review and photographs by Imelda Michalczyk

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