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Folk Humor 

Dar Williams sings poignantly, but her sense of fun is intact

Sometimes it seems like there's really not much difference between the crowd at, say, a Julio Iglesias arena-sellout concert and the intimate audience for a female modern-folk artist such as Ani DiFranco or Dar Williams. At both, throngs of underage girls set the tone with their carefully selected clothing (meant either to reveal flesh or, on the flip side, to promote garden-variety liberal rhetoric) and their shrill trills of approval.

But, at least in Williams' case, that looks to be changing, and not only because the heavily accoladed singer/songwriter, on tour promoting her fifth studio album, moved away from the crunchy college town of Northampton, Massachusetts, a couple of years ago and set up shop in uptown Manhattan. There's also her mention in last year's Vanity Fair music issue, in which she posed alongside the anything-but-teenybopper Beth Orton and the plaintive-sounding David Johansen, the man formerly known as Buster Poindexter, under the label "The New Folkies."

And then, of course, there's her music, known for its mature, ripe lyrics, which can induce both out-loud laughter and sympathetic sighs before the chorus comes back around. Although Williams has made her mark with such songs -- "The Babysitter's Here," about the goddess role teenage caregivers play in the lives of kids; "The Poignant Yet Pointless Crisis of a Coed," which says it all; and "As Cool as I Am," which has become a tongue-in-cheek torch song for rejected women everywhere -- the tracks of Williams' latest album, The Beauty of the Rain, are less ha-ha funny, as Williams herself readily admits.

"They're funny on a deeper level. They're not as much of an obvious funny," she says. "I was going for a lush, imagistic album this time around." Toward that end, she recruited such big-name musicians as John Popper, Béla Fleck, Alison Krauss, John Medeski and Dave Matthews Band bassist Stefan Lessard to pitch in during studio sessions. Her touring bandmates, meanwhile, illustrate that Williams, who "loves to rock out," veers far from the typically spare folk sound; yes, they've backed up Ani and Suzanne Vega and Joan Baez, but they've also shared stages with the likes of Bette Midler, Rod Stewart and Wings.

Williams has also gotten married since her last tour, which can't help but change things. "I don't think marriage is as tough as people say -- I think life in general is more challenging than marriage -- but yeah, it is really tough being a newlywed on the road," she says. "I find that when I'm touring now I want to give more of myself and do a better show, so that when I'm back home with my husband, doing the marriage thing, I can feel like I invested myself fully in my work, and now I can invest fully in my time with him."

Despite the serious life changes of a marriage and a move, plus her newly serious lyrics, there's little chance that Williams' sharp sense of humor won't affect future songs. She's already kicking around an idea for a new tune: "I want to write 'Divorced Women With Trucks,'" she says. "That was a phenomenon when I lived outside the city. I've got to get to the bottom of that one."

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