If the whole is the sum of its parts and, by extension, the artist the sum of her work then Dar Williams is a tomboy who idolizes her babysitter, a God-fearing teenager, a disenchanted college student, a struggling artist, a hopeful single and an adoring mother all at the same time.
"It's important to relate, [to] draw from your experience or really think about how you want to write about something you haven't been," she says. "It's just important to get the essence right. I wrote a song about a college activist who goes out with a pothead, and that wasn't me. But you just have to figure out what you're really trying to say and how that relates to the song."
Williams certainly connects with her audience; to say she has a "stage presence" leaves the warmth out of her performances, like a wedding with cardboard stand-ins or a Christmas card with nothing inside. "There's something about making it accessible that seems to be as much a part of the performance as anything," Williams says about her always-entertaining shows. But she doesn't want to feel above her fans. "There's a way you can walk out of a concert where you feel sort of lorded over by someone. Even if it's that you're impressed, but you're intimidated."
Her latest album, My Better Self, has been called her most diverse, with its mix of songs that are bluesy, political and even daring. But Williams doesn't see it as particularly different except that it brought together her studio and touring bands, the two groups that gave her the encouragement to cover songs such as Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" (a duet with Ani DiFranco) on the disc. Characteristically, within her voice and guitar still resonates a soft but strong message about the greater life experience in what she calls "a universal love story." She says, "A lot of love stories are about choosing yourself over a crappy situation and figuring out how to find your own authority in the face of other kinds of authority."
As her life and career move on, Williams says she's turning the corner of the serenity prayer, changing the things she can and accepting the things she can't. She's focusing on standing up for others and the person she is, valuing the quality of the interaction over polished results. As a mother, she's trying to strike a balance between being fastidious and winging it. For her, this crystallized during a conversation with a friend about the merits of milk, juice and vitamins for her son, Stephen.
"I said, 'Well, love is more important than nutrition,'" Williams says. "Then I thought, 'No, that's wrong. They're both important.' So much for all this improvisation, that as long as you love them you can shovel anything into their body. You've got to get into the science of it and be a bit of a perfectionist."
She then makes sure to clarify her last thought: "Ultimately, love is more important."
8 p.m. Friday, April 7. Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Boulevard. $30-$35. 314-533-9900.
Punk-rock philanthropists and corporations make odd bedfellows, although this unorthodox relationship can be mutually beneficial. Witness the Take Action tour, arguably the most successful punk-centric traveling benefit show ever launched. The annual tour has raised more than $175,000 for the National Hopeline Network, a suicide-prevention hotline, thanks to the fact that 10 percent of ticket proceeds are earmarked for that organization. Banners emblazoned with the hotline's number (1-800-SUICIDE) dwarf stage displays for Hot Topic and Tower Records. The headlining acts (Matchbook Romance and Chiodos this year) come from large indies, not major labels.
However, some underground ethicists find interaction with big business inherently unsavory. Mike Park, founder of the Ska Against Racism and Plea for Peace tours, partnered with Take Action from 2001 to 2004, withdrawing when he perceived hints of a mainstream-marketplace environment. The amicable split between Park and Take Action founder Louis Posen resulted from a compelling conflict between virtuous approaches. Park chose a grassroots strategy, despite its accompanying frustrations and financial hurdles, while Posen invited outsiders (apolitical poppy bands, chain-store sponsors) to a once-intimate event, increasing awareness and donations in the process.
Take Action started small in 2000. Plucking several artists (Weakerthans, Fifteen, Dillinger Four) from his Sub City label, Posen booked a string of punk clubs. (Sub City acts commit a percentage of their royalties to activist organizations anyway, making them ideal candidates for a road show that raised funds for charitable causes.) That same year, the inaugural Plea for Peace bill drew from the Asian Man Records roster, with short sets from Alkaline Trio and label owner/acoustic songwriter Mike Park. Band members nearly outnumbered fans at some stops on the Plea for Peace tour, although the two groups seemed to coalesce into one community, with musicians stepping off the stage, joining the audience and singing along with other groups' songs.
In 2001 the two tours merged, and the partnership strengthened the event. Plea for Peace/Take Action attracted bigger bands, booked larger venues and scored sponsorships. By 2004 the tour was selling out concert halls, and Hopeline announced the launch of its peer-oriented service 1-877-YOUTHLINE, the direct result of Take Action assistance.
Park was pleased with the results, but he couldn't relate to the new environment. The first few Plea for Peace/Take Action outings were inspiring affairs, with fans that seemed committed to activism and music in that order. In Park's opinion, the buzz about headline bands such as Sugarcult and Hawthorne Heights (2005's featured attractions) started to overshadow the tour's larger goals.
"I thought it lost the feel of what we were doing," Park says. "That's not to say it's bad, because when you're doing it on a DIY level, you're preaching to the converted. But if you get, say, Blink-182, fans are coming to the show because they want to see the band, and the objective of the tour becomes an afterthought."
"We look for bands that are going to fill the room that also care about the cause," Posen explains. "I don't know that we've had an artist that doesn't meet both criteria."
Take Action headliners also assume unique responsibilities. On March 1, Matchbook Romance traveled to Capitol Hill, where it played an acoustic set at a press conference in front of several congressmen.
"Sharing a podium with prominent politicians was something we didn't think we'd ever do," says Matchbook Romance guitarist Ryan DePaulo. "It's awesome that the topic of teen suicide can unite people from such different backgrounds."
Park might make a future appearance in Washington, D.C. as a lobbyist. In addition to running Asian Man and touring in support of his most recent release, North Hangook Falling, Park has been attempting to establish a Plea for Peace center in San Jose, California. Concert proceeds won't be enough to address the daunting cost of purchasing or renting California real estate, so he's seeking government assistance.
"I've done so much nickel-and-diming fundraising," Park says. "In the past two-and-a-half years, I've raised $60,000, and that's a sticker here, a patch there. It's like pulling teeth or pulling grays from my head."
Still, Park has no regrets about parting ways with the Take Action tour, and he doesn't resent the event's success.
"I didn't feel right about it anymore," he says. "My heart wasn't into it. But I support them. They're doing things a different way, but at least they're doing something."
Without taking personal credit, Posen appreciates what the tour has accomplished.
"We try to stay away from pride, because we think that limits you," he says. "We just want people to know there's more to coming to festivals than spending money on band merchandise and energy drinks. You can take your excitement for the bands you love and put it toward something that helps other people." Andrew Miller
6 p.m. Friday, April 7. Mississippi Nights, 914 North First Street. $17. 314-421-3853.
A few weeks ago, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke announced that the UK outfit had "started work" on its seventh album. Included in the recording sessions is "Nude." The song, also known as "Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)," has been a staple of the group's live sets since the days of OK Computer. Air-Radiohead.com has posted several live versions of "Nude" over the years as well as acoustic versions of four other new songs taken from the group's only two appearances from the past year. The MP3s are free, but the Web site is entirely in French. No parlez? Just click on Download and Nouvel album on the right side of the page