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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Singer-songwriter-survivor turns darkness into light

August 22, 2005|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Mary Gauthier provides a musical variation of the adage about survival: What doesn't kill you makes great song fodder.

The New Orleans-born, Baton Rouge-reared singer-songwriter draws on a lifetime of emotional and physical damage for the extraordinary songs on her major-label debut album, "Mercy Now," songs that formed the heart of her performance Friday at McCabe's in Santa Monica.

Strong as her album is, it still isn't full preparation for the multidimensional power of her live show. Accompanied by her own acoustic guitar and the extraordinarily moving electric and acoustic guitar work of German musician Thomm Jutz, Gauthier, who's in her 40s, extended the John Prine blueprint of her diamonds-from-coal folk-country songwriting into her concert with generous doses of the redeeming sense of humor that undoubtedly has contributed mightily to her survival.

"I Drink" is the best song Prine never wrote, a portrait of an adult alcoholic taking stock of her self-destructiveness, neither apologetic nor blaming those who set the pattern for it: "Fish swim / Birds fly / Daddies yell / Mamas cry / Old men / Sit and think ... I drink."

Hardly grist for smiles, yet Gauthier frequently flashed a knowing sideways grin between and during songs. It seemed to be less about making light of life's darkness -- although she does that too -- than about conveying one person's gratitude for somehow managing to outwit the demons that once threatened to consume her.

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