Posted by: gdevi | November 6, 2011

Concert review: Mary Gauthier and Tania Elizabeth

Saturday, 5 November.

My daughter and I attended a beautiful concert this evening at the Center for Well-Being in State College. It was by these two musicians–Mary Gauthier, who I have occasionally heard on WPSU, and her accompanist, a fantastically accomplished violinist Tania Elizabeth, originally from Canada, and a former member of a band called The Duhks. I had not heard the band or her play before, but boy, what a fantastic fiddle-player! Special 5-stringed violin.

They started the set with  2 songs that I had not heard before. One, in the persona of a homeless vet abandoned by his family waiting out trains at a station whose title I forget now, and two,  Between daylight and dark, a melancholic landscape, which sort of established the two pegs of Gauthier’s songs: hobo songs and ballads of loss. Gauthier’s real forte lies in story-songs, mostly of the hobo kind, songs with vivid characterization and circumstance; she is a sort of a troubadour of the homeless, the hobos, the folks society would consider failures.  Gauthier does not preach or moralize–there is nothing self-serving in her songs–but like other good writers, she attempts to broaden this canvas we call life, include the folks we would like to leave out. WPSU plays “Christmas in Paradise” often and she played that this evening as well with this funny anecdote: apparently the song is a huge hit in England, and when British tourists visit the US now, they go to Key West to look for the Cow Key bridge and to find Davey. The hobos who live under the bridge of course all claim to be Daveys signing autographs! True or not, what a story, huh? That is what is charming about Gauthier; you hear about folk musicians “vamping” their audience. Gauthier is a very funny “vamper” with a gentle sense of humor.

She played a wonderful song called King of the Hobos about a man, Steamtrain Maury, who was elected “king” at the hobo’s convention held annually in Britt, Iowa, and whose death last year merited an obituary in the International Herald Tribune.  She spoke a bit about reading all the comments and reminiscences left behind by hobos and non-hobos who knew Maury at the funeral home’s website.  Gauthier is at heart the chronicler of a whole another world that lives within the surface worlds of our great nation; very interesting.

I have heard a few songs by Gauthier over the years through WPSU, and they have struck me as a sort of quirky, hobo folk country–maybe the quirkiness of early John Prine, the emotional gentleness of Johnny Cash, and the strong, spiritual detachment of a Woody Guthrie. Gauthier does not need these analogies, and I offer them only in the interest of the genre; she is quite capable of standing up on her own. She is a literary performer placing a lot of worth on words; she stresses phrases and words in a strongly unique way, like poets do, to stress their import in the general phrasing of the lyric.  Wonderful performances in the story-song/ social song genre included Christmas in Paradise, Thanksgiving, Carla Faye, Steamtrain the King of the hobos, and probably my favorite protest-song a la Woody Guthrie by a contemporary singer-songwriter, Burning Sugarcane. I loved this song when I heard it on WPSU, and I asked her during intermission if she would sing it, and she did. Just a fantastic song, and the fiddle-playing was electrifying.  She told the story behind the song; she is from New Orleans, and grew up in Baton Rouge and Thibodeaux whose economy is sugar plantation and sugar factories. Well the way they harvest the sugarcane in Thibodeaux is to burn the leaves down and then cut the stalks and then take them to the factories. This happens about the end of November and when it does it is as if a black cloud descends on the whole town.  Everything is polluted and it is a dangerous way of life. But nothing can be done because, well, that is how things have always been done there.  Apparently, her mother, her adoptive mother was a petite southern woman, a devout Catholic who never swore or cussed, except when they burned the sugarcane fields. This song is in mama’s honor, Mary said.

Another song that really showcased Tania Elizabeth’s fiddle-playing was Wheel inside the Wheel, a jazzy funeral song written in honor of her friend David Carter, who was apparently a musician as well. Very beautiful song, with a rousing ode to death as only a rite of passage. I really enjoyed it.  I also liked Our Lady of Shooting Stars; my daughter liked this one as well. Prayer without Words, a song that definitely speaks about recovering from addiction, is another similarly rousing song. Very beautiful, truthful song. I have had the sad experience over the years of dealing with students who struggle with acute drug addiction. It is an epidemic amongst our youth these days. I listen to them when they come to talk, and theirs is a hell and a pain that is on the one hand, very self-centered and focused on them only–they have no curiosity or interest in the rest of the world but talk only of themselves–it is a pathology–but on the other hand, the more aware of them really see how hopelessly they are under the grips of a monster that now controls them body and mind. It is a sad thing to watch. I thought of all of those young men and women when I heard this song. In a completely different way and scale, this is as good a song about the hell of drug addiction as is Joni Mitchell’s Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire. There is nothing sadder or more wasteful in this world than a junkie. Both songs construct extremely vivid images of this pathological state.

Wow, just the two of them, they are like a band, my daughter said. Gauthier plays guitar and harmonica, and Tania plays the fiddle and the foot thingy–I don’t know what it is called. I mean they play and they sing; it is not like a studio, D. said. It is not like Justin Bieber. Yes, I agree, I said, it is not at all like Justin Bieber.  Justin Bieber can only sing on a CD; he cannot sing live, D. said. He is made in a studio, she added. I am very pleased that you can see that, honey, I said. The audience at the Center for Well Being gave these women a standing ovation twice, and for encore, Tania did an electrifying version of the Hangman’s Reel played the French-Canadian way. Just awesome.  Look for the instructional video on YouTube, Mary said.

Overall, just a beautiful concert. I am glad I saw them and I am glad my daughter saw them too.

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