The first time I saw Mary Gauthier was nearly a decade ago at the now-defunct Winterhawk Bluegrass and Beyond Festival in Hillsdale. She was an unknown name to me, sharing the bill at a songwriters’ workshop with such heavyweights as Steve Forbert, Slaid Cleaves and Greg Brown. In the opening round, she served up “I Drink,” and after I picked my jaw up off the ground, I headed straight to the merch tent to buy her CD.
On Wednesday night at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, Gauthier tossed off the devastating “I Drink” as her second song of the night. She didn’t need to hold onto it for a big climax; she’s got plenty more where that one came from.
And Gauthier is still full of surprises. She took the stage at Lena’s with former Duhks violinist Tania Elizabeth, who not only added some unorthodox but perfectly moody fiddle embellishments, but also some sweet vocal harmonies to help leaven Gauthier’s downbeat, sometimes harrowing, based-on-true-stories songs.
After ambling through “Falling Out of Love” with some appropriately mournful harmonica moans, Gauthier told the crowd, “We’d play a happy song now, but we’ve only got one, and we try to save it for the end.” Then she added, “I’m sorry, but it’s only going to get worse from here.”
While Gauthier’s songs about society’s outcasts certainly aren’t very cheery, they are oh-so-good, maintaining a tightrope walker’s balance between the plainspoken and the poetic.
She explained that the seed of her song, “Camelot Motel,” was born from the words “kitchenette” and “cigarette,” a rhyme that had the three requisites of her songwriting:
a) “It’s a little sad.”
b) “It’s a little country.”
c) “And I don’t think that Bob Dylan has used it yet.”
The second half of her concert was drawn exclusively from her powerful new album, “The Foundling,” an autobiographical song cycle about being abandoned as a newborn, being adopted by an abusive family, running away from home at 15 to live among the fringe and forgotten of society and her eventual search for her birth mother, which culminates in “March 11, 1962,” a brave and bone-chilling song that’s constructed as one-half of a telephone conversation.
I don’t think that I’m giving anything away by saying that the tale doesn’t have a happy ending…
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
MARY GAUTHIER SET LIST
Falling Out of Love
Between the Daylight and the Dark
Burning the Sugar Cane
I Ain’t Leaving
The Last of the Hobo Kings
THE FOUNDLING SONG CYCLE
Mama Here, Mama Gone
Blood Is Blood
March 11, 1962
The Orphan King/War Is Over
The Hangman’s Reel (Tania Elizabeth solo)
Drag Queens in Limousines