Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival are reknowned for their impeccable taste and I always look forward to seeing their programme launch in April to see what gigs and comedy I can go and soak up. This years programme doesn’t disappoint, with a eclectic range of music that would whet any culture buffs appetite.
In the Waterfront Hall the crowd is filtering in to the early 2pm show to see Mary Gauthier. It’s not often Belfast gets hot or sunny weather but on this sunny Saturday it has hit both of those things so I am somewhat pleased to see that it is near on a sellout show despite the rare climes outside. For anyone unfamiliar, Mary Gauthier is an American folk singer songwriter. She draws on her colourful and sometimes dark past to write storytelling songs with a slightly country/Americana flavour. As she says herself, she ‘doesn’t write daytime songs’ and ‘sad songs just make you feel better’.
The crowd are all settled with their libations when we are told this gig is a collaboration between the Real Music Club and Cathedral Quarter Arts festival and Gauthier is welcomed to the stage. Joined by Michele Gazich on the violin she opens her set with ‘False From True‘ from 2014s Trouble & Love album. It’s a song about lost love and the scars it leaves but it is soothing to the ear. On ‘Between Daylight and The Dark‘ her poetic lyrics mixed with Gazichs heart rending violin playing make it a poignant listen and although it is from 2007s album of the same name it sits well in the setlist. Gauthier asks the sound engineer is there any effects on her equipment and quips ‘if in doubt, turn it up’. It’s an icebreaker and she then welcomes us all, thanking us for coming out of the sun for the afternoon show.
She is witty and frank to listen to when she speaks and this transfers into her songwriting. ‘I Drink’ is an honest song that makes me think of Merle Haggard and it’s delivered in a no nonsense way. Gauthier tells us about a man called Steam Train Morrie Brown and how she came to read about him in the obituaries of a New York newspaper and he inspired the song ‘Last Of The Hobo Kings‘. The song has an easy rhythm about it punctuated by the stirring violin. The lyrics talk about John Steinbeck and hark back to an easier time when people were freer to live as they choose and this goes down well with the crowd. On ‘Another Train‘ I get vibes of Aimee Mann and that’s a compliment. It’s a slow and wistful ballad filled with heartbreak.
This tour is promoting Gauthiers new album Rifles And Rosary Beads so naturally some of the songs will get an airing. What I am not prepared for is their back story and the emotion that goes with them. To cut a long story short, the album is a collection of songs which were written with US veterans and their families and it is very emotional. The eponymous title song of the album was co-written with a young man she describes as broken after being involved in the Gulf war, and with lyrics like ‘whistling sunset bombs, I couldn’t trust the sky’ it paints a picture of the horrors he witnessed. On Iraq she highlights difficulties female military have and it taps into the #metoo movement and the feeling that time is up for perpetrators of abuse but it is an emotional listen none the less. It’s clear the project is something Gauthier holds very dear and rightly so as she is helping these stories reach the wider world, or as she describes it ‘acting as midwife to the songs’. ‘Soldiering On’ continues the theme of the wounds of war and talks about the high suicide rate in veterans- in the US they lose 22 veterans a day to this. Cheery Saturday listening it is not but it is moving and needs to be heard.
Gauthiers voice is understated and smooth and Gazich’ violin plaintive and soaring. ‘Mercy Now‘ from the 2005 album of the same name is a frank and honest song that punches in the vulnerable feelings and Gauthiers voice is gentle over the fingerpicking guitar. Ending the show with a cover of Woody Guthries ‘This Land Is Your Land‘ is a highlight for me as we are all encouraged to sing along and it is ever more relevant today with the state of the US and when singing “There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me, the sign was painted, said ‘Private Property’ But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing, this land was made for you and me” Gauthier rolls her eyes acknowledging the relevance to her country still and the crowd laughs along. Before long the song has ended and we are milling out into the May sunshine again having witnessed something special. For fans of Americana and folk I’d suggest you give Mary Gauthier a listen, you won’t regret it.