The wheel inside the wheel
by Whit Hill
Plenty has already been written about Mary Gauthier's famously interesting life: her rough-and-tumble beginnings in Louisiana, her eighteenth birthday in prison, her studies in philosophy and the culinary arts, her years as the owner of Boston's first Cajun restaurant and, of course, her drinking, which she gave up years ago and now just writes about.
That she started writing songs rather late in life is both intriguing and, when you think about it, unsurprising. As best I can tell, being "mature" just means that you've got a ton of life knocking around inside you and sometimes the stuff come out: plays, poems, mansions, babies, graffiti, needlepoint, paintings. And songs.
I first saw Mary Gauthier ("go-SHAY") at the Michigan Theater a couple of years ago when she was opening for John Prine. She strode to the center of the stage with her beautiful guitar and, backed by another guitarist, sang a short, strong set that was complete in itself: intense, personal, and wrenching. She's no lilting folksinger; rather, each song felt like a challenge, a line drawn in the dirt.
I saw Mary Gauthier again this August at a small music festival in Ontario, where I was playing with my band. Each summer Canadian songwriter Fred Eaglesmith hosts two charity music events, and this, Fred's Southern Picnic, was one of them. We finished our set as the sun set over a nearby lake and then stayed around for the rest of the lineup: Eaglesmith, a band of classical Indian musicians, and Mary Gauthier. I was anxious to see her perform in this somewhat less formal setting. She played by herself simple, spare music to back phrases that have been distilled to their most pungent and incisive. Her "Wheel inside the Wheel" is a magnificent work, inspired by the sudden, startling death of songwriter Dave Carter. It's a funeral march that's at once terrifying and yet filled with joy and hope.
Satchmo takes a solo, and he flashes his million dollar smile
Marie Laveau promenades with Oscar Wilde
Big Funky Stella twirls her little red umbrella to the beat
As the soul parade winds its way down Eternity Street
Souls ain't born, souls don't die
Soul ain't made of earth, ain't made of water, ain't made of sky
So ride the flaming circle, wind the golden reel
And roll on, brother, in the wheel inside the wheel
I wonder how it must feel to have a signature song like "I Drink" and to have to sing it night after night or at least know that people expect you to sing it. Luckily, it's a great song, as strong in its silences as in its few, almost begrudgingly, bitterly sung words. At one point a car alarm went off; Gauthier just halted the song until it stopped and then picked right up. Finally, Gauthier led the audience in "Mercy Now" a sweet exhale of a song as the night grew cool in rural Ontario.
Mary Gauthier is at the Ark opening for Melissa Ferrick on Monday, November 5.
[Review published November 2007]