Live albums can be a tricky proposition. Even if a performer succeeds in doing justice to their material, the artist still has to find a way to enhance the originals. On the other hand, if the concert renditions fail to match the studio versions, then they might be accused of being overly dependent on their producer's studio savvy.
So what's the musician to do? If you're Mary Gauthier, you take your most resilient songs - and a few by a sympathetic soul like Fred Eaglesmith - and redefine them in such a way that remains faithful to their original intent, stripping them down to the basics and affirming the somber sentiments. Over the course of her career, Gauthier's signature sound has been defined by songs that frame their narratives around dysfunctional characters, troubled souls alienated by and from the mainstream. Inspired by her troubled childhood, they offer a bleak worldview that's as haunting as it is harrowing.
It's appropriate then that "Live at Blue Rock," Gauthier's first live release, repositions these awkward individuals - the heartbroken sibling of Your Sister Cried, the persistent wanderer of Last of the Hobo Kings, the desperate outsiders of the autobiographical Drag Queens in Limousines, the wasted junkie captured in Karla Faye - and affirms their dark designs with nothing more than guitar, harmonica, fiddle and percussion. The results illuminate them in the shadows, bringing her audience into those solitary environs where they can embrace her subjects' frailties. It's a harsh world to be sure, and given these unembellished arrangements, it's starker still. Nevertheless, it's not without precedent - the unapologetic edge of Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks," the sepia hues of "The Band," practically anything by John Prine, Lucinda Williams or Townes Van Zandt - all of which provided Gauthier's template on how to maintain some kind of nobility in the face of affliction.
Up until now, Gauthier's chronicles of desperation and despair haven't found their way beyond a dedicated following. Given these hushed yet unflinching set-ups, it's unlikely this particular effort will expand those parameters much further. Nevertheless, anyone looking for a poet/musician that defines the essence of a genuinely expressive artist need search no further.