Songwriting is a craft and an art, and among the elite songwriters, it is also a gift.
Saturday night at the Folly Theater, Sam Baker and Mary Gauthier, two gifted songwriters, enchanted a crowd of more than 800 with more 100 minutes of humor, poignancy, sorrow and melancholy.
The format was stripped-down and simple. Each strummed an acoustic guitar and played the occasional blues harp as songs were swapped back and forth. Baker started the evening with “Baseball,” one of his resonant portraits of Americana: “Another baseball field, another popfly / Another bunch of boys, another blue sky.”
Gauthier followed that with one she co-wrote with Fred Eaglesmith, “Between the Daylight and the Dark,” a song about losing “the love of a wayward girl who left you with a second-place smile and a broken heart.”
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Baker’s style resembles a few songwriting legends, like John Prine and Guy Clark, especially in songs like “Isn’t Love Grand,” a whimsical and heartwarming tale of two people who love each other despite their defects: “There is a beautiful woman she walks with a limp / He calls her his princess, calls her his gimp / She calls him her fat man, calls him her pimp.”
Gauthier, too, can be at once poetic and profound, as in the autobiographical “I Drink,” which addresses her years of addictions: “Fish swim, birds fly / Lovers leave, by and by / Old men sit and think / I drink.”
She can write a good narrative, too, as in “Iraq,” about a woman who is an Army mechanic, and “Last of the Hobo Kings,” about Steam Train Maury,” who was a true hobo, not just a bum: “Bums just drink and wander round / Tramps dream and wander, too / But a hobo was a pioneer who preferred to work for food.”
Things got especially emotional when Baker told the story behind “Broken Fingers”: He was riding a train in Peru in 1986 when a bomb hidden in a suitcase exploded, killing a family of three, including a young boy Baker was talking to moments before the explosion. Baker suffered critical injuries and severe hearing loss. He endured a lot of “self-pity and rage,” Baker said, but when he thinks of the boy who died, he acknowledges his own fortune and blessings: “Forget his face? Of course I don’t / Etched like a crystal vase.”
For the encore, each delivered a valediction. Gauthier sang “Mercy Now,” a plea for compassion: “I love life, and life itself could use some mercy now.” Baker closed the evening with “Go in Peace,” a lovely hymn that dovetailed nicely with Gauthier’s: “Let us go into the dark / Not afraid, not alone / Let us hope by some good pleasure / Safely to arrive at home.”
It was the perfect closer. As it had been throughout the evening, the room was again filled with grace and the enchantments of two virtuoso songwriters.
Baseball; Between the Daylight and the Dark; Isn’t Love Great; I Drink; Waves; Last of the Hobo Kings; Say Grace; Cigarette Machine; Ditch; Iraq; Pretty World; Christmas in Paradise; Broken Fingers; Mercy Now; Go in Peace.