Three Women and the Truth – Asheville, NC
When songwriters get together for an evening, if they have their instruments with them (or if at least one of them does), you can almost guarantee that the night is going to end in a round. This musical show-and-tell format has been the lifeblood of the singer-songwriter world for so long, you couldn’t even count. It happens in living rooms, it happens at festivals — late at night around a fire, often with whisky or wine in the mix. The gig is simple: introduce a song and then play it. Everyone else will either sit back and listen or toss in some harmony, an understated guitar solo, a foot stomp.
The whole thing evolves into a sort of song-and-story chain. I’ve been in rounds where someone plays one sad song and then everyone who follows tries to out-sad the song that came before. I’ve witnessed rounds that focused on cover tunes, songs about being lazy, songs about death or murder, songs about wild women. Sometimes, it’ll start about one thing and become about something else — the music traveling hand over hand, around a room and through the souls of those present.
It’s an awesome thing to participate in, but doesn’t always lend itself so easily to performance, try as countless acoustic music venues might to present “songwriter in the round” evenings. I’ve seen so many of those that are just trying too hard. The point of the round, after all, is that it’s not a performance; it’s a sharing. It’s like talking to your friends.
But when the songwriters doing the round happen to be some of the finest storytellers in the business, whose songs (“Last of the Hobo Kings,” “Five Minutes,” and “Paradise Hotel,” for starters) are teeming with some of the most well-developed characters and background tales one might find in a song, the show takes care of itself.
Such was the case last Friday night, when Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters, and Eliza Gilkyson set up shop at Asheville, North Carolina’s Altamont Theater.
Designed originally to be a black box theater presenting the work of contemporary playwrights, the Altamont almost immediately became focused on presenting singer-songwriters in an intimate listening room setting, just a block or so away from the bustling main drag downtown. The room changed hands earlier this year, and the new owners have really stepped up the programming. It often seems as though they’re filling their calendar straight from the No Depression archive. Gauthier has been a frequent visitor since the Altamont’s genesis, though, and it’s a perfect room for her casual, personable singing storyteller-style performance.
This time, she brought Peters and Gilkyson with her, which only sweetened the deal. They moved through selections from across their expansive careers, joking about everything from GPS misdirection to the coming election, to the Spice Girls. They noted they’ve each taken on Spice Girl names for this tour, with Gilkyson joking that Gauthier’s assumed name is Dude Spice. They joked about Peters’ predilection for focusing on carnies (she delivered a gorgeous performance on “Woman on the Wheel” from her 2012 Hello Cruel World album). They joked about Gilkyson being the happy one, whose songs less frequently veer toward tragedy.
Gilkyson’s “Midnight on Raton” was an easy and obvious early highlight, as was Peters’ “When All You’ve Got Is a Hammer.” Gauthier’s always-timely “Mercy Now” was another show-stopper, with the other two women lending their voices in expansive harmonies. They dropped eviscerating jokes about Donald Trump and North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (the supposed “bathroom bill” which goes much farther than simply dictating which bathroom anyone’s allowed to use) — Gauthier at one point cracked, “I wanna use the men’s bathroom just to see what happens to me.”
And, exciting all the songwriters in the room, the artists announced that they’re going to hold a songwriting camp near Gilkyson’s home in Taos, New Mexico, next summer. If you want to learn how it’s done, that’ll be the place to be.
Or you can simply witness these three onstage together. They don’t have a bad song — nor a dull moment — between them.