Live Review

Mary Gauthier / Mark Olson - Lola's (Portland, OR)

Mary Gauthier on February 6, 2008

I've been pondering lately what it means for someone to be authentic, though it sure is evident when it's not present (see ya around, Mitt). In music, as much as we might get off on an assumed persona like Ziggy Stardust, what lasts is the genuine article: Neil Young, John Lennon, Bob Marley come immediately to mind.

Few artists could deliver a more authentic performance than Mary Gauthier did on this night. She laid her heart on the stage, and ripped mine out, too. For 75 minutes, she held the audience dead silent except for the thunderous applause between songs, while transporting us on a truly emotional journey.

Performing solo and relatively quietly, Gauthier connected with her exquisite phrasing and writing, though her guitar and occasional harmonica sounded terrific and provided more than enough accompaniment. Her voice conveys equal amounts of pathos and warmth, her songs a deep understanding of the human condition.

Performing material largely from her 2005 release Mercy Now, Gauthier wrung every last emotion out of the tunes with her hushed vocals, especially on the career-defining and show-stopping title track. Other highlights came from her most recent release, Between Daylight And Dark. "Last Of The Hobo Kings", inspired by an obituary in The New York Times, is a sharply written story-song; the character becomes as real as the trains he jumped. Gauthier's fine details bring focus and resonance to her work; for example, "He knew how his nation was doing by the length of a sidewalk cigarette butt."

And if there has been a more moving song written about Hurricane Katrina than "Can't Find The Way", I haven't heard it. The couple sitting in front of me wiped the tears away.

After the set, virtually everyone lined up to have Gauthier sign something at the merchandise table. Why would anyone not seize the opportunity to meet Gauthier after this set, where every note, every syllable, rang so true? Her life story, too long to tell here, is clearly inspiring to her loyal fans. It informs Gauthier's every breath, as she openly revels in her relatively late success, having overcome life on a very tough road both more and less traveled.

The only problem was that, while the fans queued up in the back of the room to get closer to Gauthier, Mark Olson took the stage to perform his typically tuneful and tasteful songs. The crowd of 300 dwindled to maybe 40 by the end of his set, as people filed out after visiting with Gauthier. Even beloved Jayhawks tunes such as "Blue" and "Sister Cry" couldn't hold them, much less the many songs from his excellent recent solo release The Salvation Blues. While the artists and the audience did their level best on this night, the promoters dropped the ball and did a disservice to both acts by putting Olson on last. A note to all you singer-songwriters out there: Following Mary Gauthier is a high-risk endeavor.