Concert Review: Mary Gauthier / Jaimee Harris @ Caffe Lena, 09/17/2023
Dark Enough to See Light: Gauthier’s Heart Changing Songs and Stories Brighten Caffe Lena’s Rainy Sunday Night
SARATOGA SPRINGS–Folk singer, songwriter and storyteller Mary Gauthier charmed Caffe Lena‘s patrons on a rainy Sunday night this September. With her southern drawl, wry insights, and kind nature, Gauthier left our corner of the world a bit gentler through her transformative music.
If you aren’t familiar with Gauthier and her music, it isn’t too late to become acquainted. The southern folk singer shifted careers in her thirties after a DWI arrest helped her not only find her sobriety, but also her passion for storytelling through song. She shared that story on stage and through her book “Saved by a Song,” which she referenced and read throughout the night.
The 61-year-old Gauthier performed with Jaimee Harris, who opened with some of her original songs. Harris is being referred to as “the next Queen of Americana music,” and she showed up on stage in a costume fitting a queen. In head-to-toe red cowgirl uniform, complete with pink sunglasses and sparkles, Harris’ appearance drew gasps of delight from many. When she began to sing, however, is when I gasped. She played a few original songs that made it clear she not only had chops but a depth of experiences herself to draw from.
My favorite of Harris’ songs was her recently released “Boomerang Town,” a ballad about her hometown of Waco, Texas. She connected a Woody Guthrie verse from “This Land Is Your Land,” a verse she referenced as the steeple verse, that questioned if the land was really shared and meant for all of us if some had so little benefit from it. “Boomerang Town” shared the story of a young couple’s despair as they fell in love, tried to leave, but found themselves trapped in repeating old family patterns of poverty.
Harris’ vocals are stunningly beautiful, as was her earnest expression as she plucked through “The Fair and Dark Haired Lad,” a song about alcoholism. Harris disclosed that she, too, had been arrested prior to finding sobriety. And like Gauthier, the music appeared to be her therapy out of addiction.
The two women joined forces ironically to open Gauthier’s set with “I Drink,” a song many might have heard performed by other country singers. Gauthier’s version (she’s the song’s writer) is a bit sadder and darker than others you may have heard, and more clearly indicates the denial and self-loathing addicts face, as well as the isolation. If you think you’ve heard this song but not heard her version, I highly recommend you check Gauthier’s out. It will haunt you.
Gauthier’s songs have this funny way of teaching you something heavy while helping you to shoulder the load. On Sunday at Caffe Lena, I felt like I was spending the evening listening to my favorite aunt tell me story after story that ultimately reminded me of my better, most loving self.
From “Drag Queen in Limousines,” I was reminded that sometimes we are lucky to be loved by those who understand us, but not always. “Sometimes you got do / What you gotta do,” Gauthier slowed her tempo, making sure the audience was leaning in to hear what followed. “And hope that the people you love / will catch up with you,” she smiled, with a cheering crowd bursting into applause.
As the night wore on, the messages became heavier, but Gauthier and Harris were there to lift us up and help us through the challenges of the music. And by no means am I suggesting that the actual harmonies were complex or that the music was hard to unravel; it was the lyrics, frank and detailed in their imagery, that were sticky and made folks think about trauma and how it impacts others. From “Last of the Hobo Kings,” I was reminded that sometimes kingship is defined in service to others rather than material wealth. From Gauthier’s song about wives of veterans caring for the injured, I was reminded how trauma impacts others than the primary victim – and they deserve care too.
In “Some Times,” Gauthier’s new song with Vince Gil, there was the gentle nudge to acknowledge the times we live in, and those times we live through. While not yet released, “Some Times” recollected the last century of change with fear, pride, and love, particularly the violence our society has witnessed through the murders of our leaders and people – while urging us to do better.
My personal favorite of the night came from Gauthier’s recent album “Dark Enough to See the Stars.” The title song from the album reverberates with the experience of loss – detailing the pain and hurt when we grieve someone. The song pivots unexpectedly, somehow pointing out at the same moment that it was finally “dark enough to see the light.” That paradox, that unexpected delicious moment of bittersweet, captured mourning perfectly.
Gauthier and Harris completed their set with “Mercy Now,” the song that has Jim convinced Gauthier is the greatest songwriter of our time. I tend to agree with him, but not just because of this song (which is profoundly amazing) but because of the stories she has told across the past 20+ years have stayed with so many of us, haunting our consciousness and pushing us to be accountable to our values.
“I’m often asked if I believe songs can change the world,” Gauthier read from a passage in her book on stage. “I do, because a song can change a heart.” And with a changed heart, you can change a mindset, a behavior, and a human. “How else does one change the world?” she smiled as she closed her book.
How else indeed, Mary Gauthier.