Guy Clark / Mary Gauthier – Old Town School of Folk Music (Chicago, IL)
With his grainy, agreeably aged voice and country gentleman looks, Guy Clark can seem like he’s from another day and time. When he sings of a Civil War combatant’s miseries on “Soldier’s Joy, 1864”, he has no trouble convincing you he’s singing from memory as much as invention.
But don’t credit his time-traveling tricks to the accumulation of years: Clark has always sounded and acted old, going back to his mid-’70s emergence as an artist who sang his own tunes as well as wrote them for others, and through his subsequent adventures as a cult hero. While his country and folk cohorts in Texas and then Nashville were playing outlaw upstarts, he was tapping into deep-seated wisdom like an oil baron mining a slow underground vein.
In his first of two sets at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, a comfy upscale venue in which it’s easy for a performer to let down his guard, Clark sounded old in some unfortunate ways. He forgot lyrics, was out of sync with his talented young guitarist, Shawn Camp (a singer and songwriter in his own right), and had trouble keeping his guitar in tune. His struggles were infectious: “I have no idea where I am,” Camp announced with a pained grin as they neared the conclusion of one song, bearing out Clark’s confession that they don’t put much stock in rehearsing.
But coasting on his charm and his reputation, Clark played the crowd like the cagey veteran he is, winning them over with long-settled favorites such as “L.A. Freeway”, “Homegrown Tomatoes” and “Picasso’s Mandolin”, plus two Clark/Camp collaborations from a song cycle in the making: “Sis Draper”, inspired by Camp’s spirited old violin teacher, and “Soldier’s Joy”, which, despite being the darkest entry on Clark’s new album, The Dark, boasts its catchiest chorus.
Clark is a bit too fond of homespun truths and sentimental payoffs, particularly when angling for lyrical insights about have-nots and ordinary folks at the end of their rope. And he reveals little in performance that he doesn’t reveal on record, thriving too much on routine. But few artists navigate the talking/singing divide more affectingly, and in embodying the simple profundities of standout songs such as “Stuff That Works” (written with Rodney Crowell) and his departed buddy Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live’s To Fly”, Clark can raise consciousnesses with the best of them.
Opening the show and accompanying herself on guitar, Mary Gauthier added to the self-portraiture of her three indie albums in decidedly offbeat fashion. Tough as nails in singing about her walks on the wild side as a rebellious youth and willful adult, but wryly self-effacing in her comments to the audience, the Louisiana native had the forceful appeal of someone who has found herself lock, stock and barrel, and won’t give back a shred of her identity to convention.
Gauthier’s arrival as a singer-songwriter, which followed a stint in Boston as a restaurateur, hasn’t come easily. She claimed that not until she heard people laughing at her biting delivery of “I Drink” did it occur to her that she hadn’t written the saddest country song imaginable. Not that the songwriting process is always shrouded in mystery. “Jesus Christ, it won’t take Bob Dylan to write this one,” she said she told herself after spotting two guys in the Florida Keys stretched out on lawn chairs under a bridge, to which one of them had affixed a fake Christmas tree stolen from K-Mart. Voila: “Christmas On Paradise.”
Though she’s just starting to become widely known, Gauthier has been around long enough to have absorbed some heady influences. Like John Prine, she makes the most of short, sawed-off phrases, pithy wordplay and poignant reveries. Reviewers have begun trotting out comparisons to Lucinda Williams, prompted partly by former Williams producer Gurf Morlix helming Gauthier’s 2002 release Filth & Fire, and perhaps partly by the singers’ shared Louisiana experience.
You can certainly hear some Lucinda in Gauthier’s twangy vocals and road fever. But whereas Williams is a notorious neurotic, Gauthier comes across as someone who doesn’t know the meaning of hesitate. She knows who she is and she doesn’t care if you do, too.