Mary Gauthier paces across the left side of the porch at the back of the house, separated from the stage by room dividers. She paces, drinks from a water bottle, glances toward the stage. Above her, above us all is a tremendous old oak tree, its Spanish moss in black silhouette between her and the sunset.
Onstage, a very good Canadian duo is playing sweetly to an audience fanned out in the back yard, all varieties of camp chairs from Spartan to opulent fill the space. Bottles of wine, coolers of beer and, far to the left, beyond Mary Gauthier, are tables filled with food. A big cake, finger foods and such. The wooden fence surrounding Bart and Susan's ‘Music Under the Moss' concerts is draped with pretty lights. Dogs bark from other yards like distant jungle drums. Barking at the music, at the rows of parked cars along the narrow road in ‘The Cove.'
Mary paces, drinks water from the bottle, watches from the back. I know the pacing, the impatience to begin. We've played two concerts in the last three days and this is a rare opportunity to be part of the audience. Pacing before a show may not be universal, but it isn't uncommon. The show, the chance to tell the stories and sing the songs, is everything. After the show, eating too much, talking too fast, trying to come down, yes; but before the show it's the waiting, wanting to look the audience in the eye, to pass along the one thing that matters more than anything else. Music, lyrics that are always more than just that, more like memories and confessions linked by a progression of chords.
Finally, it's time. Mary Gauthier appears as so many touring musicians do, loose without being clumsy, looking tired and uncomfortable with the pause in the introductions. A beginning that seems almost bashful, mumbling, tuning a guitar that has suffered sitting in the Florida damp, the duo now her backup band, shift and wait until she begins her first song.
I love people who keep me off-balance with their lyrics, who go to places I hadn't imagined they'd go. Mary does that, starting with the Fred Eaglesmith song, ‘Your Sister Cried.'
Well, I stared out of the windshield into the rain so light
And I turned on my dims, and somebody flashed me their brights
And I reached over and turned the radio way down low
Lightning crashed, and the road shone like a mirror
Your sister cried all the way home
A dog came out of the ditch, then he disappeared
And I remembered a conversation we once had on the phone
Your sister cried all the way home
I was hooked. Around me, people shuffled deeper into their seats, clinked wine bottles against glasses, settled in to listen. The magic that a good artist can create is truly that. The late dusk poured over us like a dark syrup, and that Spanish moss, grey now, swayed above the soft stage lighting. Behind Mary Gauthier, behind the duo, a frosted bathroom window became a light show as people drifted in and out of the room, their shadows floating inside for a minute or two, the pale, buttery light going off, then on. A huge palmetto frond below the window reflected the light and danced with each breeze. She never noticed, almost dancing herself at the microphone as she told her stories and sang her songs.
The King of the Hoboes, and why a Hobo was not a Tramp. She told us gracious stories of her little Italian stepmother, of the burning of acres of cane in the part of Louisiana that created her. It was in her voice, in the rich accent that told as much as the words. Oyster shell roads and nights so dark you could get lost in your own yard. She sang an exquisite song she'd written after reading a newspaper article about the people so lost in that darkness after Hurricane Katrina:
With nothing but our dreams
And memories of who we've been
Scattered forth like seeds
At the mercy of the wind
Another day another night
Another night another day
We wanna go home
We can't find the way
The inevitable knot of over-aged stoners stood in the darkness at the back of the crowd, murmuring and laughing in stage whispers that carried, I'm sure, to the stage. But that's another thing you get used to as you share your songs, your stories. She sang on, and the audience leaned forward in their seats to hear her soft words.
"I stole my mother's car on a Sunday," she said quietly. Her sweet music was lifted, carried along by the couple - Scott Nolan and Joanna Miller, from Winnipeg. I don't believe I've heard anyone so well matched to the singer as these two. Mary Gauthier played, sang and apologized for having to leave early, explaining they had a show the next night deep in Louisiana. That's a long road, and we've been on it more than once. Five hundred miles of pine trees and wet air that plays through your sleeve as you drive. Windows up and the air on, the Southern sun will bake you and melt you to your seat. With the windows down the humidity bathes you in your own sweat. It's a long road, and she apologizes again. Sings a last song, Mercy Now,
Every living thing could use a little mercy now
Only the hand of grace can end the race
Towards another mushroom cloud
People in power, well
They'll do anything to keep their crown
I love life, and life itself could use some mercy now