Mary Gauthier saunters on to the stage and puts her hand over her eyes, looks out to the couple of hundred fans packed into York’s bijou venue, The Crescent, and asks, “York, have I been here before?” the audience chuckles. She picks up her guitar and continues, “I can’t remember where I’ve been…. but it’s good to be back!” and then we’re into The Meadow from her last release Dark Enough To See The Stars, the first of 13 songs and brief readings from her book Saved By A Song. This was the ninth gig on a 10 date tour of England with one appearance in Edinburgh.
Her life story has been tumultuous starting with her adoption and leaving home as a teenager. At a young age the path took in substance misuse, halfway houses and gaining acceptance for her sexuality before study, opening a restaurant and eventually pursuing her music career. She was 36 before releasing her first album. Now a multi award winning sexagenarian her demons have been long cast off and, with the audience in the palm of her hand, she seems wise, compassionate, comfortable, a poet yet still an independent, offbeat observer of life. Dark Enough To See The Stars, covers love and contentment but she’s sensitive to the recent loss of dear friends and the dislocation and challenges of modern times; this pours out from her songs. This includes the profound anguish and mental scars faced by returning soldiers from war zones. For her 2019 Grammy nominated album, Rifles and Rosary Beads, she worked with veterans, active military and their families. They were paired with songwriters and the result was an intimate and cathartic collection of songs. She sang The War After The War and Bullet Holes in The Sky, back to back, with an explanation of the project and how privileged she was to be involved. Her abiding memory was of everyone’s desire for peace.
Gauthier plays acoustic guitar with her partner, Jaimee Harris, also on acoustic and vocals. Harris takes the guitar lead when required and her singing voice adds a little sweetness and melody to Gauthier’s gruffer tones. Throughout Gauthier provides the background to many songs and dips into her book to explain her views on the world or her history. Within Nashville there was a community of artists she came to admire and dearly love. The loss of John Prine ands Nanci Griffith were blows and touchingly she recounts her first group song writing session with artists she was in awe of. They all played a song and eventually it comes to her turn to sing one of her own compositions. She borrows a guitar, plays and then after finishing she starts to hand this upmarket guitar back to Nanci Griffith. Griffith backs away and insists she keeps it. From here we’re into a lament for these friends with Till I See You Again;she sings “May you rest in gentle arms till I see you again.”
The performance is near seamless, sentimental, illuminating and populated with some wonderful songs. In such a small venue disappearing from the stage to regroup for the encore is silly and so as the delighted audience hoot, holler and clap she raises her finger to indicate there will be one more song, Mercy Now. From here it’s to the back of the room to sign the merchandise and greet the fans as we file out in to the chilly air.
(The very talented Jaimee Harris played for a too brief 30 minutes, with a handful of songs, mainly from her upcoming album Boomerang Town released in February. That is something to definitely look out for.)