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Williams widens circle of exposure through music

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

About halfway through our conversation, singer-songwriter Dar Williams mentions “the myth of the folk audience.” Intrigued by what this myth might be, I ask Williams to explain further.It’s “the myth that people have one loyalty and will hear anything they think is folk music, this idea that there’s one roaming audience who listens to one kind of music,” said Williams, who performs in her trio on Thursday, Aug. 14, in the Snowmass Village Free Summer of Music series. In truth, Williams continued, “people are more varied in their tastes. There is a lot of crossover.”Williams has moved in various directions to reach out to the reality of that scattered audience. Her recent CD, “The Beauty of the Rain,” can, on first glance, seem like an overt effort to make contact with the jam-band crowd. The guest list on “The Beauty of the Rain” reads like a jam-world who’s who: keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood; harmonica player John Popper of Blues Traveler; bassist Stefan Lessard of the Dave Matthews Band; violinist Michael Kang of String Cheese Incident; and banjoist Bla Fleck. The CD is bound to catch some attention among jam-band followers. But “The Beauty of the Rain” is unlikely to be immediately embraced by those who favor 20-minute instrumental jams. Musically, it fits comfortably into Williams’ style, with an emphasis on lyrics and melody, and not a spontaneous jam to be heard. Williams didn’t even envision an album where she was backed by the cream of the jammers. Instead, the guests were picked one by one, and the selections were based as much on personal compatibility as musical appreciation.”The original joke I had with my manager was, every time we read about these musicians, they have the same values, the same politics as me – they’re into organics and recycling and hemp,” said Williams, a native of Westchester County, N.Y., who moved just this week from New York City to an hour’s drive north of Manhattan. Williams also appreciated the virtuosity of the musicians she worked with. “Musicians usually have a broader range of tastes than just the music they make,” she noted. “You have the freedom when you’re a solo artist. And I have the best musicians of the century available, and these are people with such personalities. People like Bla Fleck and Alison Krauss, they explore music and become very unique.”In the end, “The Beauty of the Rain” is distinguished not by the guests, but by Williams’ songs and voice. “It’s my album, and it’s the way that I make music,” she said. “This is the singer-songwriter album, and it’s from folk roots. It’s not to turn the songs into jams. It’s within a very set time, and it’s in the world of the song.” That said, Williams found that there was much common ground between herself and the backing players: “My manager said, there’s not a huge value difference between what you do and what these musicians do.””Cry, Cry, Cry,” a 1998 project which Williams spearheaded, doesn’t seem to have much in common with her latest recording. “Cry, Cry, Cry” placed Williams in a trio with fellow singer-songwriters Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell. But like “The Beauty of the Rain,” “Cry, Cry, Cry” was intended to widen the circle of exposure. “Cry, Cry, Cry” focused on songwriters outside of the trio: the reasonably well-known Robert Earl Keen and Greg Brown, and lesser-knowns like Buddy Mondlock, Leslie Smith and Jim Armenti. “Cry, Cry, Cry,” said Williams, began with her and Shindell recording some favorite songs by their contemporaries on a four-track, “very cottage-style.” When her manager coaxed them to pursue it further, they both agreed to expand the fold with Kaplansky. The album ended up gaining more exposure and consumed more time – both in recording and subsequent touring – than she expected.It was “a lazy man’s project for exposing the world to more artists that we liked,” she said. “We wanted to be helpful. It let people know there’s more out there that’s off the beaten track.”I had a lot of people who got turned on to my music through the female singer-songwriters – Ani DiFranco, the Nields. And I got to turn people on to Greg Brown, which was really enjoyable for me.”Just as important, “Cry, Cry, Cry” allowed Williams to develop by broadening her musical contacts and influences. “There’s a little universe that’s the Dar Williams’ universe – it can be its own thing, or it can orbit other planets and create communication between other worlds,” she said. “You learn a lot about your own world when you jump into other people’s turf.” The free concert series on Fanny Hill closes with a bang. After Dar Williams’ concert, singer-guitarist Jimmie Vaughan – known best as Stevie Ray’s older brother, but known to blues enthusiasts as a great bluesman in his own right – performs on Aug. 21. The Skatalites, the most revered of the Jamaican ska bands, closes the series with a special Saturday appearance on Aug. 23. Of course, the end of the free concert series doesn’t sound the end of this summer’s music in Snowmass. The summer closes on what should be Snowmass’ biggest bang ever, the Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival. Held Aug. 29-Sept. 1, the Labor Day bash features headliners Neil Young, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, African reggae star Alpha Blondy and country singer Clint Black.It is almost certain to be Jazz Aspen’s biggest outing, but there is a question mark over the music: Namely, what is this “Greendale” thing Neil Young is performing?”Greendale” is a quasi-music theater piece, a collection of 10 songs about a Northern California family – the Greens – that weaves in issues of murder, corporate power and the environment. Reviewers are in agreement that “Greendale,” which features actors and B-grade sets, represents another eccentric moment from the ever-iconoclastic Young. But the news is good on several fronts. For one, the reviews, especially from the recent Red Rocks shows, are positive. The Denver Post noted “there was something great about what [Young] was trying to do,” and called “Greendale” “strange, but … not boring.” An Aspen Times colleague was even more enthused, calling the show maybe the best he had ever seen.Second, Young seems to be indulging those who want to see his hits. His shows have been running around the three-hour mark, meaning there’s a generous set of familiar songs after the “Greendale” cycle is played out. Third, the “Greendale” package – a CD, and a DVD shot by Young himself – is due out Aug. 19, so fans can be familiarized with the “Greendale” songs by the time Young, playing with his long-running outfit Crazy Horse, gets here, on Aug. 31. The four-hour trip to Telluride hardly seems like an onerous burden for a Widespread Panic fan to endure. Considering that Panic will play two shows, Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 13-14, in Telluride’s beautiful Town Park, four hours seems like a blink of the eye.But for those who want a Widespread hit closer to home – or those who want even more Panic – there is Soulshine. A benefit for the family of late Vail resident Bobby Silverman, Soulshine will feature Panic lead singer John Bell in a Saturday, Aug. 16, concert at Vail’s Ford Amphitheater. Also on the bill are the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Radiators, Waylandsphere, and Tishamingo.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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