Mary Gauthier took to the celebrated stage of the Union Chapel with Jaimee Harris and Michele Gazich (who would provide throughout the set another dimension to the music with his violin and piano playing) and started the evening with the first of many songs from her new album ‘Dark Enough to See the Stars.‘ It was a gentle easing in with the ruminative ‘The Meadow‘ which has the audacity to suggest that a blanket on the ground might be a solution to a lot of concerns and longings and with the thought that “we could lay down in the grass / Until the feelings pass / then go home” is full of love, not lust. It’s certainly a contrast to the impassioned feelings of ‘Trouble and Love‘ and even more from what could be regarded as “the early hit” – ‘I Drink‘.
There’s a deep swerve into Americana storytelling with ‘Last of the Hobo Kings‘ which mourns the passing of a person and a way of life – there’ll be no more Steamtrain Maurys, and no Woody Guthries either now that “boxcars have been sealed for years / And trespassers do time / The railroad yards are razor-wired /And hoboing is a crime.” It’s grand mythologising of a time out of reach other than through the pages of ‘The Grapes of Wrath‘ or ‘Bound for Glory.‘
There followed the first of a few reading from Gauthier”s her new book, ‘Saved By A Song‘. Part autobiography, part songwriting philosophy and part commentary and opinion. Highlighting her role as a troubadour she emphasized that she hears “true” in that word – and that is what drives her songwriting. No-one could deny that, few songwriters create songs so vivid and so honest. Honest like the wrenching pain of ‘Falling Out Of Love‘ – it’s an edgy blues and not necessarily only about love as such, but certainly about getting free from something.
Gauthier jokingly suggested that she’d got into a little controversy with the new album saying, “I know some people really didn’t like that I wrote some happy songs….I’m sorry!” It’s hard to imagine who’d think that way when the songs are as good as these. ‘Amsterdam‘ is a case in point, as Gauthier recounts all the things that sparkle in Amsterdam when viewed through loving eyes. It’s tear to the eye beautiful – were there a few loving looks exchanged on the stage? Well, maybe so and why not? Equally obvious in its inspiration was ‘Thank God For You‘ which, with Michele on ramshackle upright piano, had that Dylan with the Band feel – a sound which Mary Gauthier has as much right to as anybody.
Not everything in the world is as sunny, life isn’t like that. Gauthier spoke movingly of her ten years working with veterans in the non-profit songwriting workshops founded by Darden Smith. ‘War after the War‘ addresses the invisible and unsupported burden picked up by soldiers’ partners when they return from war whilst her co-write with Beth Nielsen Chapman, ‘Bullet Holes in the Sky‘, reflects on the parades and the free breakfasts offered on Veterans Day and the unthinking certainty that ‘Yes they’d send us back.‘
‘Moving On‘ is a return to lost love, with a life so beautifully collapsing as the act of moving on runs into physical manifestations of the depths of despair being endured. This downturn in mood was succeeded by the darker – or at least sorrow-touched – songs from ‘Dark Enough to See the Stars‘ with the folky title song reflecting on the loss of John Prine. The equally deeply felt loss of Nanci Griffiths – who had early on gifted Gauthier a guitar in a Nashville songwriting circle ritual – was reflected on before the emotional ‘How Could You Be Gone‘ which is a co-write with Jaimee Harris. Both have recorded it for their latest albums, and Mary Gauthier gave the lead vocal to Harris whose clear-voiced rendition is as moving in its own way as Gauthier’s on her album.
The set closer ‘Til I See You Again‘ was another gentle folky song that appears to offer blessings for life, but takes on another aspect when it is revealed to be thought in response to John Prine’s passing and a wish for some eventual reunion. The single encore of ‘Mercy Now‘ perfectly encompasses what the world needs – more empathy, less hatred and, should there be an all-powerful creative deity perhaps a little helpful intervention might not go totally amiss as Gauthier sings “There’s people in power who’ll do anything to keep their crown I love life, and life itself could use some mercy now.”
What a night it had been. An emotional night, in the company of one of the finest songwriters around.
Jaimee Harris had acted as the opener for the evening with a five-song set taken from her upcoming album ‘Boomerang Town‘. She’s a smooth-voiced folk-country artist whose songs veer between a playful upbeat love on ‘Missing Someone‘ ,which riffs on the anticipation of getting back with someone who is away “works piled up/ dishes ain’t done / I’ve been stuck on the telephone / ain’t been sleeping in my bed / I’d rather be in yours instead“, to the epic tale of Small Town life going wrong in all the anticipated ways of ‘Boomerang Town.’ Harris hails out of Waco, a town she notes that never gets a cheer but is the epitome of a Boomerang Town – the kind of town people are desperate to leave but always seem to end back up in after a while.
Jaimee was joined by violin virtuoso Michele Grazich (a regular player with Eric Andersen) who added some inspired playing on ‘The Fair and Dark Haired Lad‘ a song about a perilous addictive relationship told as a murder ballad.
‘Love is Gonna Come Again‘ was a beautifully tender song consolingly looking to the next love as the current one fades away. The final song of Harris’ set was a nod to her mentor Bob Neuwirth – a fine rendition of his co-write with Pete Case and Tom Russell ‘Beyond the Blues.’ In all honesty, the evening couldn’t have started better. If you don’t know Jaimee Harris already then you need to get her on your music player of choice as soon as possible – great songs sung powerfully and, live, an easy raconteur. Suffice it to say that a longer set would not have gone amiss.