Mary Gauthier and The Handsome Family at the Freight and Salvage

THE Freight and Salvage in the centre of the university town of Berkeley in California is described as a coffee house, but its fame is for much more than serving a latte or a frapaccino.

This community run venue not only offers weekly classes in banjo, fiddle and guitar but attracts some of the world’s leading folk, alt country and rock performers to its stage.

Tom Paxton and Judy Collins are on before Christmas, and there are few who don’t want to be included in the 300+ shows it puts on each year.

On Wednesday I went to catch up with Brett and Rennie Sparks, the Albuquerque-based duo better known as The Handsome Family, seen annually in the UK, at The Larmer Tree and in Bristol as well as in London. Their surreal songs usually involve birds, and the current tour is no exception.

The gravelly bass-baritone in which Brett delivers Rennie’s very peculiar songs is even deeper, and more melodious, than I remember, and the Freight audience loved every minute of the set. In Berkeley, they could hardly avoid singing their early classic Weightless Again, about hurling yourself of the Golden Gate Bridge (visisble through the mist from Addison Street).

Then there is the new song about George Jones and his owls, and the one about Rennie’s granny disappearing into the forest. All wonderfully inventive, and pretty much uncategorisable stuff.

The duo, with their percussionist, was supporting Mary Gauthier, who made her own UK debut at the Foundling Hospital in London, and has a select and growing following this side of the pond.

Mary’s is a true story as strange as anything Rennie can dream up. Born in Louisiana 51 years ago and abandoned at birth, she was adopted by a Catholic family and brought up by an alcoholic father. She ran away at 15 and spent her 18th birthday in the state penitentiary for drugs offences.

Picking herself up she went to university, dropped out in her fourth year, trained as a chef, moved to Boston and opened a restaurant. She overdid the celebration for the opening, and was arrested for drunk driving. Since then she’s been teetotal and clean.

The restaurant was a great success, but she turned her attention to songwriting, attracting the attention of many leading folk and country singers.

Setting out to find the woman who abandoned her, she also wrote songs about her quest, and The Foundling was her third album, launched in the UK at the Coram Hospital in London.

Now Mary is based in Nashville, and has just released her seventh studio album.

She describes her songs as gloomy, but what they are is painful, thought-provoking, varied and brilliant, delivered with brilliant timing and a memorable voice.

The subjects range from lost love though the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and subsequent “100-year-storms” to the recent death of the King of the Hobos.

The success of the Freight and Salvage should be heartening for promoters in the south west keen to bring artists to their venues. Of course Berkeley has one of the world’s most famous liberal universities, so there is something of a captive audience.

But this is no venue exclusively for academics. The energy is infectious as it provides a meeting place for all ages and tastes. GP-W

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