Sam Baker and Mary Gauthier gave an intimate performance at the Folly last night

Sam Baker and Mary Gauthier
Folly Theater, Kansas City, Missouri
Saturday, September 20, 2014

“You know, this is the opposite of takeoff,” Sam Baker declared last night, early in the show at the Folly, as he and co-headliner Mary Gauthier began trading songs in a songwriter’s circle of two. They’re both known for brittle, spare and heartbreaking tunes, and Baker was almost apologetic as he introduced one of his relatively rare happy ones, “Isn’t Love Great.” He paused, looking for a precise analogy, grinned, and declared: “It’s a submarine. We’re going to start it in dry dock, and then go down in the trenches.”

His description of last night’s setlist turned out to be accurate, but it definitely didn’t apply to the conversation that he and Gauthier would have in between. As they set up on a spare stage – two chairs, two guitars, two microphones and two monitors – Baker and Gauthier established clear ground rules. The setlist would be announced as they went, and Baker emphasized that they wouldn’t join in on in each other’s songs.

“There’s a reason for that,” he explained patiently. “We don’t know how.”

Gauthier laughed and added: “We both came to this late in life.”

Maybe, but each lived enough life before they began songwriting – Baker at 50, Gauthier at 40 – for a dozen careers between them. From Baker’s opening tune, “Baseball,” to Gauthier’s last, “Mercy Now,” the show was a collection of the short stories they tell in song, held together with stories about writing the songs and a pile of mutual admiration. For other shows, the banter might have seemed like too much, but for this one, it was almost inseparable from the music.

As Baker launched into a joke about a wronged wife and a pharmacist (according to Gauthier, for no less than the seventh night in a row), the two seemed like a brother and a sister, even though they’ve only toured together for a week or so. She was the sister who finds his stories goofy (a tale of a drastically misinterpreted TidyCat commercial, for instance), yet who simultaneously eggs him on. He was the brother who depends on both.

That rapport carried the show, and the almost impossibly rapt and reverent crowd settled in for what felt like the largest living room show ever. The sound was absolutely crystalline, and the audience was entirely invested in its performers. Baker’s highlights included “Broken Fingers,” a tribute to a German boy who died in the same Peruvian train bombing that cost him the back of his hand, and “Ditch,” a newish story of a man who lays pipe and his affectionately labeled “crazy ass wife,” one of a handful of Baker’s less impressionistic recent portraits of the real people he loves.

“I’m going to play another happy one,” Baker said before he launched into “Pretty World,” seeming almost surprised. 

Gauthier responded drily: “I’m glad you have happy songs. I wish I did.”

She had a point. Gauthier’s lightest moment was her first, the song “Between the Daylight and the Dark,” and she squeezed some gallows humor from the otherwise mournful “I Drink.” Still, those who know Gauthier’s work know that if there’s a celebration to be had, it’s the celebration of surviving the bleakest of times. One of the most heartrending moments in the show was her song “Iraq,” co-written with veteran Army Mechanic Brandy Davidson as part of the Songwriting With:Soldiers program. The song tells the tale of an engine mechanic fighting off the dangerous and devious advances not of an opposing enemy, but of the single-minded men in her own ranks.

The only possible complaint was that there wasn’t a single song from Gauthier’s latest album, Trouble and Love. The show was also a little on the short side – not that it was unfulfilling, just that the combined powers of Baker and Gauthier could have kept the audience there for another two hours. Still, when the last line from the hymn “Go In Peace,” the evening’s only duet (and a traditional Baker closer), echoed through the theater, urging the crowd “safely to arrive at home,” it was clear that most of the audience had spent the last 90 minutes already there.

Leftovers: This show, part of the Folly’s Cyprus Avenue series, marked the 35th anniversary of Bill Shapiro’s radio show. In what has to be one of the most jaggedly sad and lovely dedications of all time, Baker sang his song “Waves,” a portrait of a man who has lost his of wife of 50 years, to Shapiro and his wife in honor of their 30th anniversary. In the world of Baker and Gauthier, it made perfect, joyful sense.

Baseball (Sam Baker)
Between the Daylight and the Dark (Mary Gauthier)
Isn’t Love Great (SB)
I Drink (MG)
Waves (SB)
Last of the Hobo Kings (MG)
Say Grace (SB)
Cigarette Machine (MB—Fred Eaglesmith cover)
Ditch (SB)
Iraq (MG)
Pretty World (SB)
Christmas in Paradise (MG)
Broken Fingers (SB)
Mercy Now (MG)
Go in Peace (SB and MG)

Categories: Music