Carrie Rodriguez, Mary Gauthier and Erin McKeown
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
The Acoustic Café Tour - a study in female singer-songwriters - stopped by Kansas City last night, and it was pretty damn wonderful. First things first, though: Who named this tour? Knuckleheads' full house was held rapt for the entirety of the performances of Erin McKeown, Mary Gauthier, Carrie Rodriguez and fiddler Tania Elizabeth. Still, "café night" implies coffee, yuppies and blond-wood tables - and Knuckleheads' honky-tonk charm is all swaggering, full-bodied bar. Still, there isn't another venue in Kansas City that could have hosted this quartet of women as gracefully as it did.
A respectful, engaged crowd watched Erin McKeown, the youngest and most pop-friendly musician in the bunch, rocking little riffs on her acoustic guitar in her buttercream-sweet voice with a cheeky attitude. "There are easy songs to write, and there are hard songs to write. This is an easy one," said McKeown, referencing her pissed-off rail against evangelicals that was called - you guessed it - "Evangelists."
Mary Gauthier, who took the stage next, was a bit more direct. "I make shit up for a living," she said. "It's a good gig if you can get it." Before the Louisiana singer-songwriter even launched into a verse, she drew the crowd in: I could listen all night long to her regale us with tales of culling inspiration from her shitty hotels. ("All I had to do was imagine who else was in that dump with me, and there it was.") Of course, Gauthier used the Camelot hotel to rhyme cigarettes with kitchenettes. "It's a job, isn't it?" she asked, smiling.
Gauthier's songwriting is impeccable, and the warbling delivery has a great, alcoholic swill, but - at first - it seemed too rough for her songs' delicate structure. Gauthier's keen sense of human drama drew the focus away from her voice and toward her lyrics, which painted vivid scenes like vignettes in a novel. It's a technique that hearkens back to the true, original blueprint of a country song: They're stories.
"I keep it simple," Gauthier said. "Really, I do. This one's called 'I Drink.'" Another song introduction was a bit more fitting for the love hangover of the day after Valentine's Day: "This is for everyone else who's ever fallen in love with a sociopathic narcissist. Can I see some hands? Some are slowly raising. Other couples just look uncomfortable."
My favorite song of the night was another one of Gauthier's about the "King of the Hobos," Steam Train Maury, who she discovered through an obituary. "Hobos don't say that they die," she explained. "They say that they caught the westbound." It was a ponderous number that had an eerie beauty that only befitted lines like, He knew how his nation was doing / By the length of a sidewalk cigarette butt.
Two fiddlers - Carrie Rodriguez and Tania Elizabeth - came out for a snarling, gnarled fiddle duel that proved to be one of the night's more mesmerizing moments. McKeown joined for a fresh-faced pop song, grounded in country dirt by Rodriguez's fiddle shredding.
Finally, all of the women converged for a cover of Hank Williams' "Lost Highway": a beautiful, tender cover with ethereal country harmonies that sounded more like a gospel song than a honky-tonk ballad. Another stand-out, apart from the spiritual, achingly beautiful closing number, "Mercy Now," was Gauthier's award-winning number, "Drag Queens and Limousines." It's a song of urban struggle and queer identity, but the boozy, honky-tonk sway fits it perfectly. What was magical was this line: Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do / And pray that the people who love you will catch up with you.
Amen to that.
There's little that compares with sitting beneath crackling heaters at Knuckleheads while steel grates on steel on the train tracks outside, listening to a bunch of country women sing a Hank Williams song. It reminds me of why I do this job.
Overheard in the Crowd:
Mary Gauthier: "I have no idea what to say to that. Thank you, baby."