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Folk-rock songstress visits the Bay Area

Dar Williams' performance at the Fillmore in San Francisco on Oct. 16 demonstrated that she's not merely a folk-pop singer-songwriter on a promotional tour for herself and her music, but also an activist who is concerned with social justice and environmental causes.

Williams started her concert with a haunting cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" from her latest album, My Better Self. Afterward, she related an anecdote that she said she'd told only once before, in Santa Cruz, about why she chose to record "Comfortably Numb."

"I said, 'Well, it was after the election,' and they said, 'Oh, say no more,'" she joked.

Williams then showed the audience her beads, which she said were made from magazine pages by a woman in Africa. She got them from a project called Bead For Life, whose Web site can be found at, a poverty eradication project that connects impoverished women in Uganda with citizens in North America. Her shirt, she added, was made of hemp.

After several more songs, Williams asked Nate Borofsky of the opening band, Girlyman, to talk about biodiesel, a fuel made from renewable sources such as vegetable oils or animal fats. Borofsky told a story about when the band was in Santa Cruz the day before and pumped biodiesel from a solar-powered pump in the mountains. They had $15 deducted from their fee when they gave the pump manager one of their albums.

"You guys have to secede," Williams declared to the audience.

Further mention must be made of the opening band, Girlyman. They opened the concert with a rollicking 45-minute set, with songs ranging from a love ballad to a cover of "Son of a Preacher Man" to something they called "girlygrass," joking that they didn't practice enough to rate the name "bluegrass." Their folk-rock style relies heavily on close harmonies. They joined Williams on several songs.

Williams' performance consisted mainly of songs from her newest album, My Better Self, which is more politically bent than her previous recordings. "Empire," for instance, contains lyrics such as "But when our people torture you / that's a few random cases. / Don't question the sun, / it doesn't help anyone."

In "Echoes," Williams sang about how good acts can have a ripple effect, how "Every time you open to kindness / Make one connection used to divide us / It echoes all over the world." Expanding on this idea, she organized a community-based charity campaign she calls the Echoes Initiative, where in certain tour locations she promoted small community organizations such as Bread and Roses, located in San Francisco, which provides free, live entertainment to isolated people in hospitals and shelters.

Williams closed her show with a stunning rendition of "Iowa," a song about a woman who chooses to be powerful and to love despite the odds. She invited the audience to sing along, and many knew every single word. Before the final chorus, she took a few moments to simply strum her guitar and talk about how she believed in people and felt they could really make a difference. She used to ask people to hold up their lighters, "but you know, times change, people stop smoking," she said, "and people started to hold up these curious glowing things instead." There were chuckles in the audience as attendees caught on and held up their cell phones.

It seemed like the entire room sang along to the finale, waving their cell phones, these instruments of connectivity that, according to Williams, could be used to effect real change in the world.