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Published: 2013/03/30
by Nancy Dunham

Mary Gauthier
Live at Blue Rock

Proper Records

Watching Mary Gauthier in concert is something akin to a religious experience. It’s one thing to listen to the studio versions of her songs – all the way back to her 1997 debut with Dixie Kitchen they’ve been killer with mounds of clever word and subtly elegant instrumentation. But watch Mary Gauthier in concert at Nashville’s famed Station Inn or any other club, honky tonk or venue at which she plays and you’ll arguably be bowled over by the power of her music as she toggles between formidable performer and her past life as someone spiritually adrift whose life may be unsalvageable.

Live at Blue Rock, Gauthier’s just-released album, does what her studio albums just can’t. It presents Gauthier at her musical peak which has arguably infused her with enough confidence — not to mention writing and performing chops — that she details the soul-crushing misery of her life as an orphan, teenage runaway, and addict and transforms it into something of a universal snapshot of the human condition.

Until the release of this album it was almost impossible to explain how her songs take on a new level of complexity during live concerts. How do you explain the way a subtle twist of phrasing or a few extra chords heightens the heartfelt lyrics
and melodies of her songs, which have won her a devoted fan base that includes such luminaries as Bob Dylan and Tom Waits?

Trite as it sounds, that’s one of those things that need to be experienced to truly appreciate. Think of it as trying to explain the visual differences of fireflies. Yeah, it’s the same beetle you see during the day but it’s different at night.

Consider the song “Karla Faye” about the infamous killer Karla Faye Tucker, who was executed in Texas during 1984. When Gauthier introduced the song, pin drop silence fell over the audience at the Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio in Wimberley, Texas for several beats before the upbeat sound of a fiddle swept in and Gauthier began singing the somber lyrics including “A little girl lost, her world full of pain, he said it feels good, she gave him her vein, and the dope made her numb, and numb felt like free, until she came down, down, down to a new misery.”

As Gauthier sings and plays, accompanied by fiddler extraordinaire Tania Elizabeth and percussionist Mike Meadows, the song blossoms from one about the convicted murderer to a storyline from anyone’s life. The wild applause from the audience at the song’s conclusion only underscored that perception.

Sure, most of the songs on the album rightfully earned critical acclaim when they were released. But there’s something startling about Gauthier’s live performances of songs such as “Blood on Blood” from her 2010 album The Foundling. Lyrics including “Clouds are spreading like bruises on the evening sky, I walk the streets alone again tonight it starts to rain still I search each passing face, coz blood is blood, blood don’t wash away” take on a completely different dimension in the live format.

It’s impossible not to respect Gauthier’s restraint. Sure, she could talk about her own experiences that were the basis for her song “Blood on Blood” but she instead introduced it as a song for children searching for their anchor.

“As a songwriter, I’m always trying to go to the deepest possible place inside of me. Past the navel-gazing, past the self-conscious, to get to that ‘we,’” Gauthier said in a press statement. “’Cause deep inside of all of us is the universal. And that is an artist’s job, to transcend the self. I’m in there, but then hopefully, it goes past that and it hits something far, far bigger and more important than me. That’s what I’m aimin’ for every time I write.”

Nowhere is her success more evident than in her live performances, such as captured on this album.

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