By Dale Henry Geist
Seeing a masterful singer-songwriter at an intimate folk club is one of life’s sweet pleasures. Even sweeter: seeing two of them. Jaimee Harris and Mary Gauthier brought their current tour to One Longfellow Square, a little gem in the heart of Portland, Maine, on Friday night. I felt lucky to be there.
Gauthier, by now a seasoned vet, and Harris, a relative newcomer, are a couple: they live together, they travel together, they play together; they do everything together, and this intimacy wrapped the cool autumn evening in an added layer of warmth.
That came in handy, as their songs, Gauthier’s in particular, can be hard. They look squarely at the roughest of human heartbreak without flinching, tell the truth about it, look for—and often find— redemption hiding in there somewhere.
Harris opened, wearing her trademark heart-shaped glasses, at ease before the full house, cracking jokes at the expense of her Waco, Texas hometown, and double-checking to see if everyone in the crowd of folk fans had heard of Woody Guthrie (they had.) Her set was heavy on new material: she didn’t advertise them as such, but her followers know that songs like “Missing Someone,” “Boomerang Town,” and “Love Is Gonna Come Again” will appear on her upcoming album (also titled Boomerang Town.) I’m happy to report that they outstrip even the excellent songs on her debut LP, Red Rescue.
Harris’s music bears the clear signs of having graduated from the fabled Texas country-folk singer-songwriter school founded by Kris and Willie, carried forward by the likes of Guy Clark and Nanci Griffith, and transmitted directly to Harris from the stage of Austin’s Continental Club by Jon Dee Graham, James McMurtry, and other lone star legends. I called her a ‘newcomer,’ but this is true only to New England stages. Though young, she’s been at this for well over a decade, and her songs portray a wisdom that comes only from hard lessons.
Harris stayed onstage for Gauthier’s set, contributing guitar fills and harmony vocals. Gauthier herself was loose and relaxed, mixing fan favorites like “Drag Queens In Limousines,” “I Drink,” and the obvious closer, “Mercy Now,” with selections from more recent works like her 2018 Grammy-winner Rifles and Rosary Beads and this year’s excellent Dark Enough to See the Stars. Peppered between, she read several passages from her 2021 memoir, Saved By a Song.
Gauthier is an acknowledged master, a songwriter’s songwriter, having learned at the feet of John Prine and Nanci Griffith, and her specialty is heartbreak. Not the romantic kind—well, perhaps that, too—but the built-in heartbreak of being human.
But she knows a secret: only a broken heart can let the light in. So it’s no great stretch to go from “The War After the War,” outlining the quiet domestic tragedy that’s the common fate of the spouse of a military vet, to “The Meadow,” with its hopeful refrain, “Won’t you meet me in the meadow? No more alone,” and from there to “Amsterdam,” as light and sweet as a song can get.
More highlights: “Oh Soul,” a masterpiece of tormented regret, written with Ben Glover, and “Dark Enough to See the Stars,” offering an inkling of hope on the far side of bitter tears, written with Beth Nielsen Chapman. The latter features the deathless couplet, “Every child is born to die, but the soul is born to fly.”
Gauthier, with her beloved Jaimee Harris by her side, includes us in her final benediction: “I know we don’t deserve it, but we need it anyhow / Every single one of us could use some mercy now.”
I don’t know about you, but I sure could.