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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011


photographer unknown: apologies to him or her

I've mentioned Mary Gauthier before on this blog (I think) but until last week I'd never seen her perform live, though I have almost all her albums and one of them  -  Between Daylight and Dark, 2007  -  is a toweringly fine body of work, almost without blemish. It opens with the tour de force of 'Snakebit', the first verse of which includes this vivid imaginative couplet setting a scene of despair and fear suffered in darkness: "Even shadows fear to wander / They gather round me in the candlelight." Then comes 'Can't Find The Way', a brave and effective song in which the detail makes clear that its inspiration is the arrival and immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Mary Gauthier is from Louisiana) but which has a chorus that widens out into a far more general expression of contemporary displacement, ending with "We wanna go home / We can't find the way."

The whole album is alive with empathetic observations, small and large, and you're hearing throughout what's incontestably an authentic and distinctive artist's voice  -  voice in both senses.

Her lyrics are carefully wrought and affecting and she always sounds as if she means it. Her songs offer Wordsworth's "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" originating from emotion recollected not quite in tranquillity  -  I don't think she has arrived at tranquillity yet  -  but in responsive alertness to the need to balance urgency with artistic detachment.

What she achieves, as a result, and delivered with such gritty and compassionate vocals, is a truly rare clarity of observation. It's there, for example, on 'Before You Leave', where she sings that "there's something you should know... The darkness that shadowed you was mine / It was never yours at all /And the light behind your eyes that used to shine / Gets brighter as you walk away." I don't know when I last heard such arresting candour in anybody's lyrics. Candour, that is, not as raw, self-indulgent emotional splurge or disguised braggadocio but as piercing self-criticism expressed out of love of another.

All her best work  -  and that is most of it  -  is on that level. It oozes integrity.

Last Thursday Sarah and I went to see her only French concert of the year, at a tiny town in a gorge in the north-east of the Midi-Pyrenees  -  and she was great. She has played the Royal Festival Hall as support act to Richard Thompson, and she has played many large venues in her own right, across America and beyond, but in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val there were only 28 people in the audience, including us.

Undaunted, she (and her excellent 5-string-fiddle player and harmony vocalist Tania Elizabeth, who used to be in the Duhks  -  and who gave brilliant support) played a full two-hour set. She was strong on acoustic guitar, added an occasional bit of harmonica, and never faltered through a sweep of songs which, perhaps surprisingly, included very little from her latest album, The Foundling, but plenty from across the rest of her self-penned repertoire, from the first real song she says she ever wrote, 'Goddamned HIV', through her best-known number 'I Drink' (the one Bob Dylan played on Theme Time Radio Hour) to the title song from her 2005 album Mercy Now. She was generous, modest, purposive and full of presence without resorting to any showbiz tricks. It was well worth that 100 mile journey to get there, and the thrill of her concert transformed the 100 mile journey to get back home.

PS. There's an interesting profile on, and interview with, Mary Gauthier by Steve Boisson, for Acoustic Guitar magazine, here.


Anonymous Rainer said...

Agree! And - here ist the Dylan connection - I first heard her on Dylan's Radio Show ...

9:30 pm  
Blogger mick said...

Thanks Michael for your excellent account of Mary Gauthier and her work. Like all good criticism, it makes you want to hear more and to listen harder.

12:14 pm  

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