Saturday, February 5, 2011

Heroes and High Notes

Last Sunday I saw Dar Williams perform with the Ibis Chamber Orchestra. It was a family affair: her sister-in-law is the harpist, and is married to the violinist/arranger. They've all been wanting to do a cross-over project like this for ten years, and they made very interesting choices.

Some of Dar's music is already arranged with strings on her albums, but even those sounded great with live strings: one harp, one bass, one cello, a viola, and two violins. Other songs sounded like the great Dar tunes that they are, but New! Fresh! Weird with an orchestra! She covered Comfortably Numb on her last album and they did it. Imagine--Comfortably Numb, Dar and her guitar, and six strings as backup. There were some kids in the audience and it may have been the first time they heard this song ever.

She did "Calling the Moon" first and oh, Lordy, I cried like a baby. See, Dar is not just courageous; I can tell she used to have fear. And I can tell that she doesn't just feel pretty; she used to feel ugly, too.

My friend Mary and I were in the front row. It was a small theater where I had once seen a "silent" production of Romeo & Juliet. (There was music and sound effects, but no dialogue, and Yes, it was really something.) I was closer to Dar than I sometimes am to performers at Greenbelt's New Deal Cafe, a one-room performance space. Before Dar came out I noticed how low the mic was and thought it couldn't have been for her vocals, but I always forget how little she is - no taller than Liz Phair.

In the second song Dar faltered and she pretty much never recovered for the entire show, even after intermission. But let me tell you something: this was not like seeing Stephin Merritt cock off at the bad Magnetic Fields concert I went to. I watched Dar struggle. I completely saw the pain in her. She screwed up three or four songs after that, but I didn't even care. I was so close to her that I could see her working, and see what it was doing to her. She did not want to call it off or stop trying, but she was sort of resigned to her imperfection. She forgot her own lyrics, and since she was all dressed up and standing in front of an orchestra, she did not just dissolve into self-deprecating giggles (although she is absolutely charming when she does that). She worked, but in many ways, she failed. It was important for me to see it.

We tend to think that the people we admire--the people doing the things we want to do or the things we wish we could do--that they are fundamentally different from us. We think they have more hours in the day or that they drink stronger coffee. The reality is that they have made the choices we have not yet had the courage to make, or that they work harder or focus better. That they spend time on the things they need to spend time on. Maybe the rest of us are just sleepwalking, thinking far-away celebrities got where they are through some inherent advantage rather than through sheer will. When the facade is broken and you see a far-away celebrity struggle, up close, it makes it that much harder to deny your own talent, your own agency (dormant though it may be), and your own time.

I admit I was a little overexcited before the concert. Mary leaned over and said at one point, "She puts her pants on one leg at a time, like the rest of us." Could that really be true of Dar Williams? If so, what all could be true of me?

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