Dan Wilson Co-Writes the Songs: Concert Review

Dan Wilson and Natalie Maines Performing - H 2014
Chris Willman

Dan Wilson and Natalie Maines Performing - H 2014

The go-to songwriting collaborator for Adele, Dixie Chicks and Taylor Swift takes center stage, with the help of Natalie Maines, and delivers the real meaning behind his Semisonic hit, "Closing Time."

The Grammy-winning songwriter for Adele/Dixie Chicks/Taylor Swift reveals that "Closing Time" was not about last call at some lonely bar, but the birth of his first child.

On the day that Gerry Goffin died, it was coincidentally appropriate that L.A. got to enjoy a performance by a younger fellow who can now claim as his primary job title the same one ascribed to Goffin: “co-writer.” That’s been a lost art — or at least not very sought after vocation — on the rock side of things, at least, so you can empathize with Dan Wilson when he talks about how he had the idea to collaborate with other rockers while he was still in the group Semisonic and was just greeted with a lot of puzzlement and rejection. As he told the crowd at Largo Thursday night, his first real co-write with another artist of note was with Carole King… not an inauspicious start to a post-band career that’s had him crafting songs with the likes of Adele, Taylor Swift, the Dixie Chicks, Josh Groban, and Pink. The results have frequently been Brill Building worthy.

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His current tour is billed as “Words & Music by Dan Wilson,” which is a format better known in a not-so-distant decade as VH1 Storytellers. But with Wilson putting an emphasis on some of his celebrity co-authorships, the stories he’s telling sometimes involve an amusing or illuminating glimpse into the creative process of some big names. He’s also able to draw a circle of how what goes around comes around. When he sat down to write “One True Love” with King, he nervously blurted out that his mother was a big fan, which caused the Tapestry woman to give him a withering look and respond, “Thanks for making me feel old.” Years later, when he was writing “Someone Like You” with Adele, she showed him incongruous Wanda Jackson clips on YouTube for a half-hour before making her own confession during a nervous pause. He remembered her telling him, “’Dan, I’m not that familiar with your music, but me mum’s a big fan.’ And I could hear Carole King going, “Bwa-ha-ha!’”

Although he’s been covering Swift’s version of their “Treacherous” at other stops on the tour, Swift didn’t come up at Largo, presumably because he wanted to make more time for an actual live guest. Wilson did sing their Grammy-winning “Not Ready to Make Nice” at a NARAS event earlier this year, but explained that he otherwise avoids it because “I’ve learned that when I try to sing a song that expresses righteous anger or Old Testament prophet-like intensity, my fans come up to me afterwards and say, ‘Are you OK?’” The Chicks’ Natalie Maines was on hand this time to sing it for him, and “luckily,” she said, “being mean comes really natural to me.” Earlier, he recalled how he’d at first urged the Chicks to write a reconciliatory anthem, only to have Maines put the brakes on that by quipping, “Would that mean we have to forgive the people who f—d us?” Fortunately, he was able to get with the unforgiving program, but Maines was still ribbing him about his positive attitude Thursday night. “What did that song sound like that you wanted to write? What was it — ‘Together’?” No, “it was called ‘Rainbow Pony Day’,” he lied. “I don’t know why you guys weren’t into it.”

Wilson isn’t nearly as milquetoast as all that, but apparently being a settled family man, he does tend to accentuate the positive in the material he writes for himself nowadays when he’s not hooking up with country pariahs or pop sob sisters. A long anecdote about bonding with a mentally challenged kid’s beleaguered mom on a plane led into “Your Brighter Days,” which he described as being about “optimism, and how it’s a good idea, sometimes.” The title track of his latest album (and first in seven years), Love Without Fear, had Maines harmonizing in the service of just the kind of mantra the name suggests. His bright, clear, sweet voice does lend itself to uplift, though he’s dead wrong about how suitable it is for more bitter material, even if there’s inevitable irony when you hear him apply those choirboy tones to something bitter. Anyway, we can always use guys like Wilson who actually are ready to make nice in song and have the smarts to make the sweetness feel hard-fought around the edges.

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Wilson said that, because he has such a pleasant persona, the only way he can threaten musicians in the studio is to bring out a “glowering” photo of Neil Young and point to it. He then proceeded to pay homage to his hero with a not-too-menacing cover of “Out on the Weekend” that featured some sublime pedal-steel work from local legend Greg Leisz. But would he close with “Closing Time,” the 1998 Semisonic hit that put him on the map? Yes, he would, and with a story that beat all the celeb anecdotes.

“Closing Time,” he revealed, was not really about bouncers tossing out barflies at 2 a.m., but about the birth of his first child. Wilson frequently interrupted the tune to point out the lyrics that only make sense if applied to childbirth. Even the “last call for alcohol” line? Even that one, which he said was inspired by the thought of the newborn having its umbilical cord snipped. “Nobody got the joke,” he said, “except me. Well, me and one 16-year-old girl who e-mailed me saying ‘You’re gonna think I’m crazy, but it almost sounds like it’s about being born.’ ‘Yes! You’re the one person.’” At least we didn’t find out “Someone Like You” is actually a funeral song.

Set list:

A Song Can Be About Anything
One True Love
Easy Silence
Your Brighter Days
Someone Like You
Not Ready to Make Nice (with Natalie Maines)
Free Life (with Maines)
Love Without Fear (with Maines)
All Kinds
Out on the Weekend (Neil Young cover)
Closing Time