IOWA CITY — Loudon Wainwright III sings of the wisdom that comes with age, Dar Williams sings of gods and goddesses. Together on the Englert Theatre stage Friday night (9/21/12), these folk music titans transported their fans to heavenly realms.
I’ve been in love with Williams since I first saw her on the CSPS stage in Cedar Rapids in the mid-90s. As for Wainwright, he gave this Iowa farm girl more than a few shudders and laughs in the ’70s with “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.” (Thanks to a Facebook friend for reminding me of that one. For kicks, go to YouTube to see him sing it at Rockpalast in Germany 40 years ago.)
Williams stepped into the intimate Englert spotlight first, just her and her guitar — until she broke a string and had to borrow Wainwright’s for a moment.
She has a long-standing love affair with Iowa and Iowa City, built by visiting a friend at the University of Iowa years ago, so each visit to these parts is like a homecoming for her. And each time, she makes me feel like I’m catching up with an old friend, through her easy-breezy style that melts away the years.
She wrapped her wispy, wistful alto around several tunes from her new CD, “In the Time of Gods,” singing of Poseidon and Persephone, but dipped back into her magical earlier albums with the hauntingly gorgeous “The Beauty of the Rain” and my all-time favorite Dar song, “The Babysitter’s Here,” her homage to every little girl’s first hero, the immortally cool, perpetually hip babysitter.
Naturally, she closed with the bouncy “Iowa,” a sure-fire crowd-pleaser in the Hawkeye State.
Her every appearance is a crowd-pleaser. Williams not only casts her spell through her magical mirror to the plagues of modern society, she also weaves magical tales between each song, making us laugh and sigh at the way she sees the world around her. It’s a beautiful world of joy and pain filtered through humor and hopefulness. Her rhythms range from gentle to rocky, just like her path.
Wainwright has been doing the same thing, walking that same path for about 20 years longer than Williams, now 45 and the mother of two.
He’s the proud father of musical daughters Martha and Lucy (who spent a summer as nanny to Williams’ children) as well as his son, Rufus Wainwright, who married his longtime boyfriend in August in New York. When Loudon was asked to give a toast at the summer wedding festivities, he instead wrote a song, “The Idea of Us,” which he graciously shared during the concert. It’s sweet and fun and beautifully sentimental — just a really lovely real-life moment for a son who obviouisly makes his father proud.
But the meat of the concert came from Wainwright’s new CD, “Older Than My Old Man Now.” He tosses his head back and punctuates every bouncy beat with a little kick and sweeps of his tongue, pouring out all the questions and quandaries and wisdom of his years into the title track, as well as others like “Double Lifetime” and the hilarious “My Meds.”
Like Williams, he prefaces each song with a little story — or even better — by reading some of the Life magazine articles his father wrote. The elder Loudon imparted a legacy of depth, intellect and charm to his son, captured perhaps best in an utterly shattering, yet somehow humorous, column about the life and death of the family dog. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one crying after son read father’s pitch-perfect writing.
Too soon, the concert was over. Sort of. We just couldn’t get enough, so Wainwright and Williams joined forces for the first time anywhere, to sing harmony and trade melodies on each other’s songs. They started with the gentle, lilting “Over the Hill,” which Wainwright wrote with his late wife, Kate McGarrigle, and ended with a lightly rocking note, singing about living for today and the uncertainty of tomorrow.
Perfect ending to a perfect evening.