Mary Gauthier and Ray Wylie Hubbard offered up very different sets at The Mill on Friday night in a concert presented by the Englert Theater. Gauthier’s songs, with some exceptions, tend toward the quiet and contemplative. Hubbard’s are, by and large, raucous and wry. Both musicians turned in top-notch performances that were enthusiastically received by the standing room only crowd.
Gauthier—who played guitar and harmonic and was supported by Joanna Miller on drums and Scott Nolan on guitar, keys, and harmonica—writes songs that feature folks who are down on their luck or at the fringes of society. For example, “The Last of the Hobo Kings” is the tale of the late Steam Train Maury, the man most often elected king at the annual hobo convention in Britt, Iowa. “Christmas in Paradise” recounts the holiday celebrations of people living beneath a bridge.
Her songs, sung in a voice that sounds weathered, worn, and wise, are filled with memorable, melancholy images. In “Cigarette Machine,” she sings: “Thought I saw your reflection in a cigarette machine/In a bottle in the gutter/In a window on the street/In a storefront in a picture on an old broken TV/I swear it was you staring back at me.”
She can also deliver hard-driving songs like “Cain Sugar,” a rocker built around the fires used to harvest the crop in the part of Louisiana where she spent part of her childhood, and “Wheel Inside the Wheel,” which closed the set.
“Wheel Inside the Wheel” has been recorded by Jimmy Buffet and “I Drink,” which Gauthier performed early in the set, has been recorded by Blake Shelton. Given the strength of her songwriting, it’s no wonder that other artists are attracted to her work.
For her encore, she returned to the stage alone to perform “Mercy Now,” a song that expands from specific people for whom she wishes mercy to encompass larger institutions, ideas, and, ultimately, everyone, is exceptional. The moving song brought her portion of the evening to a satisfying close.
Ray Wylie Hubbard is a country blues rocker down to his core. Supported by his son Lucas on guitar and Kyle Snyder on a stripped down drum kit, Hubbard raised the volume and the roof right from the start.
He’s a storyteller, both in his songs and between them. He often cajoled the audience to sing along (chiding them when they did so poorly), and his many fans in attendance were more than happy to do so.
Hubbard’s songs are often quirky. The second number of the set was “Snake Farm,” which features the chorus, “Snake Farm, it just sounds nasty/Snake Farm, it pretty much is/Snake Farm, it’s a reptile house/Snake Farm, ooooohhhh.” Of all the music I heard over the course of the long evening, this is the song that was burned into my brain at night’s end.
But it was just one of the highlights of Hubbard’s set. Others included “Name Dropping,” in which he salutes other musicians, including Gauthier, “Cooler ‘n Hell” (“Some things under heaven are just cooler ‘n hell.”), and “Mississippi Flush,” a song about the one thing that beats a royal flush.
“Count My Blessings,” a song from his most recent album, “The Grifter’s Hymnal,” was perhaps my favorite song of the set (“Snake Farm” notwithstanding). He explained its various origins and influences in such a way that made it sound as though it would almost certainly be a hodge-podge, but instead it is sharp and striking.
In contrast to Gauthier’s nigh-unto-sacred encore, Hubbard wrapped up with “Choctaw Bingo,” a long romp featuring various sorts of misbehavior. It sent the crowd home fired up.