Sunday, December 18, 2011

Swag For Fans, Not Great For Casual Viewers, Live At Bearsville Theater Flops.

The Good: Great music by Dar Williams, Some moments of stories
The Bad: Visually unexciting, Musically an uninspired selection, Cost for value
The Basics: Dar Williams makes a pretty lazy DVD release with virtually the same concert she made a live album out of before. Disappointing, especially for fans.

Right off the bat, I am a BIG fan of singer-songwriter Dar Williams. I love her music, she is one of only four musical artists I will buy ANYTHING by when they release something new without having heard any part of it. I have such faith in Dar Williams that I will purchase her works blind and I've never felt like I have been cheated in doing that . . . until now.

Back in April, I went to a concert - it turns out the day before Dar Williams celebrated her birthday - and when I made it over to Lake Placid, I discovered that I had left the item I was hoping to get Williams to autograph at home. Dar Williams is famous for meeting with fans after her shows and signing things. So, I picked up her Live At Bearsville Theater from the table of swag they had for sale. Williams did not sign (I'm beginning to think it's me as this was her second concert I went to and I've yet to meet her!) and I left Live At Bearsville Theater on my shelf until last night when I finally got around to watching it.

The short of it is that I'm disappointed. Moreover, I feel I've got a pretty decent right to be disappointed (at the concert, of course, it was not a cheap internet price!); as a fan when one of the artist whose work I love produces something new, I want to get something new. Live At Bearsville Theater is a concert DVD. Over the course of 75 minutes, Dar Williams presents a concert at Woodstock where she spends thirty-five minutes as a lone woman and her guitar playing songs that made her famous like "When I Was A Boy," "The Ocean," "February" and "Iowa." Then, she provides a voice-over about the difference in performances between being a solo artist and having accompaniment at which time, she is joined by three men who provide back up for her on "As Cool As I Am," "Are You Out There," "The Easy Way" and "After All," among others.

One suspects that Dar Williams was having a little fun with being backed by three men and using "As Cool As I Am" as the first song they did together. There's something ironic and cute and outright funny about having Dar Williams with an all-male backup singing "I will not be afraid of women" ("As Cool As I Am") repeatedly. Williams has a sense of humor and one doubts that such things were lost on her.

The concert, it is worth noting, is good. Live At Bearsville Theater presents Dar Williams in a good light, moving between her singing on stage and reactions from audience members (though sometimes the transitions happen at very awkward moments). Williams has an amazing singing voice and those who do not know the works of Dar Williams would get a fair appreciation of her range and repertoire on this DVD, whatwith the presence of some of her most beloved songs like "The Babysitter's Here," "The Christians And The Pagans," "If I Wrote You" and "Mercy Of The Fallen." Williams also does a cover of the Greatful Dead's "Ripple" and it fits her wonderfully.

But the problem with Live At Bearsville Theater - other than failing to capture the energy of crowd or the concert, including at one point Williams making a joke and the crowd either not laughing or having the laughter edited out - is that it is entirely predictable and average and expected Dar Williams. Up until two months ago, the novelty of the DVD was that it had one of Williams's forthcoming songs, "The Easy Way," but now that Promised Land is out, one need not get this just to get the new song. The only track, then, unique to this album is "Ripple," though some of the songs - to be fair - are not available in live renditions.

But that's where the DVD becomes problematic and begins to slip for me. First, for all of my love of Dar Williams as a musical artist, singer-songwriter and performer, she is a one-woman act and from what I've seen, most of them a remarkably similar. Williams is a crowd pleaser for fans in that she performs the songs that fans seem to love the most while mixing in a few new ones each concert. But between the two concerts, this DVD and her live album Out There Live, Williams is not a great live performer as far as diversity goes. All four shows have been essentially the same.

Largely, it is Out There Live that kills Live At Bearsville Theater. Out There Live is an album that has Dar Williams performing sixteen songs live. Live At Bearsville Theater has Williams performing sixteen songs, of which eleven of them are songs she performed on Out There Live. Of the five new live renditions, "The One Who Knows," "Mercy Of The Fallen" and "The Beauty Of The Rain" were all from The Beauty Of The Rain, which was almost an acoustic album, so despite my love of the songs and hearing them live, there's not an intense difference between the live versions and the album cuts.

But that brings us back to the overall concept of the concert DVD. Dar Williams is not providing a seminal concert experience for her career or for music in general with Live At Bearsville Theater. But for a DVD, Williams is not providing anything visually interesting. Don't get me wrong, Dar Williams is wonderful to look at, but her concert experience is not - for example - a work of unique performance art that changes with each outing like an Alice Cooper concert. Williams is not doing pyrotechnics or a U2-esque visual pomposity behind her or even something big. This is an intimate concert with Dar Williams (largely) providing the same songs she's already performed live for the listener. And she stands there behind her microphone flapping her leg while playing her guitar and . . .

. . . that's it; I'm not going to disparage one of my favorite musical artists. But Live At Bearsville Theater would have made for an average, maybe a little better, c.d. but it's only worthwhile to fans of Dar Williams who will never get to a concert and who do not have Out There Live. It's not a great use of the medium and Williams may have electricity at her performances (she does!) but it is not captured in this DVD.

On DVD, Live At Bearsville Theater includes three bonus features. There are two music videos, "As Cool As I Am" and "What Do You Hear In These Sounds?" They both are basically Dar Williams singing to camera, though "As Cool As I Am" mixes it up by playing out part of the storysong on screen. There is also a short collection of shots of people setting up for Williams's concert, including pictures of her adjusting her microphone height. In other words, these DVD bonus features are not going to light the world on fire for those on the fence about this DVD.

See Dar Williams in concert, pick up Out There Live, but unless you will never do either of those things, there's no good reason to pick up the DVD of Live At Bearsville Theater.

For other works by Dar Williams, please check out my reviews of:
The Honesty Room
Mortal City
Cry Cry Cry (as a member of Cry Cry Cry)
The Green World
The Beauty Of The Rain
Out There Live
Promised Land
Many Great Companions


For other video reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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