The last Mary Gauthier (pronounce it Go-shay, folks!) album that I was familiar with was Filth and Fire, which was released ten full years ago. I think I veered away from her after that because her tendency toward melodramatic lyrics, and the all-stops-out production that went with that, didn’t seem to sit well with her life-in-the-raw subject matter. It’s a personal taste thing, I know, and in the years since that album she’s become a very highly regarded figure in the Americana scene and something of a hero, I believe, to the generation coming up behind. So, it was more than time for me to give her a fresh listen and along comes a new live album – one of those career summary affairs – to completely shake up my understanding of her music.
This is a really, really good album, as emotionally powerful as if we were really sat there at the Blue Rock in her presence. All the evidence is that to recreate the emotional impact of a live performance is a very hard trick to pull off, so hats off to the production team of Philip McWhorter and Patrick Granada. There are no musician credits on my copy so I’m not sure how many people there were supporting the mainwoman. A fiddle player, for sure, a little vocal support and maybe some understated percussion. Beyond that, I’m not sure. The point is that this is a very focussed performance, hinging very directly on Mary Gauthier’s ability to deliver with voice and acoustic guitar. Well, wow! There are not many performers I can think of who can bring the kind of emotional commitment to the performance of a song that Mary Gauthier does here. Even lyrics that, in the past, I’ve found a bit overblown carry real weight here as she wrings every last drop of emotional truth out of them. If it was a true solo performance it would be plenty compelling enough, but here she’s accompanied by an extraordinary performance on the fiddle from, I believe, Tania Elisabeth. This is accompaniment of the highest level, mostly providing a complementary voice that can express everything from pain to light-hearted dance, but occasionally taking the lead voice with an eloquence and intensity that demands your complete attention.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a career summary collection that includes most of her best known songs (Drag Queens in Limousines, Sugar Cane, I Drink and Mercy Now are all there) and, interestingly, three Fred Eaglesmith songs. Mary Gauthier has writing partners like Crit Harmon, I know, but I wasn’t aware that she was into doing covers. The three Eaglesmith songs here (Your Sister Cried, Cigarette Machine & The Rocket) all fit in with her own material, both in terms of style and of subject matter, and it’s easy to see why she’d admire them enough to put them in her repertoire. She takes the outsider’s point of view and sings about those at the bottom of society’s heap; with her own life defined to a large extent by not having known her parents, perhaps she’ll always consider herself an outsider and continue to sing about field workers, hoboes, drug addicts and the like. Well, there are few as eloquent and emotionally committed as Mary Gauthier, so more power to her elbow. If you’ve not already discovered her music, start here, this is a great album.
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