I moved from a small town largely because I wanted to take advantage
of a Big Town Music Scene, like the one Boston could provide. Imagine
my delight at seeing live performances by Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and
Sonic Youth within the space of six weeks.
The subway was wall-to-wall on the way home from the Sonic Youth
show, and I had to switch trains at the big hub of the system, Park
Street, where you'll often find a busker who's staked out a prime
I'd never even seen a picture of Mary Lou Lord, but I'd read about
her ragged past in Olympia, Wash., and environs, and I think maybe
I'd heard one or two songs, well-chosen covers on some compilation
When I stepped off the train at Park St., movement was hindered by a
crowd of maybe 50 people, half of whom sat on the filthy brick floor,
entranced by a simple, pretty, sweet-voiced girl with an acoustic
guitar and a Maxi Mouse portable amp. Somehow I knew that it was Mary
Lou Lord, in the flesh, busking queen of the indie universe. So I sat
down and listened for a solid hour.
Since then, I've gotten a hold of most of Mary Lou Lord's recordings,
and seen her perform on many occasions. I've marveled at her many
talents: her way with an audience of drunks and/or commuters as she
plays, generously attributing the fine songs she picks to their
rightful owners; an uncanny knack for choosing sometimes obscure
material that both deserves a voice and seems to have been written
especially for hers an innocent, sweet musical gift that
cracks with the memory of a cigarette at just the right moment.
Many of Boston's buskers are students at Berklee College of Music or some of
the other prestigious music schools in the city. They showcase their
technique and proficiency but rarely much soul or originality. Mary Lou Lord
is not the best guitarist of the bunch; in fact, far from it. And she'll
never be mistaken for an opera trainee. But the essence of a truly great
song like "Thunder Road," laid bare by her unique voice and a few strummed
chords makes me all but forget Bruce Springsteen completely. While she's
singing it, the song belongs to Mary Lou, period. That is her gift.
Mary Lou Lord has released many records, from indie compilation
tracks, 7-inches and EPs to a major-label CD. Many of her recordings
have shown her talents well, even her gift for writing the
occasional catchy pop song herself. A major label offering on Sony
called Got No Shadow gave her an opportunity to play with
instrumentation beyond simple accompaniment, and to collaborate with
some of her fave fellow musicians.
I have generally approved of her output, but with certain misgivings.
Got No Shadow featured an eclectic, well-chosen group of
songs, but Ms. Lord's voice seemed swallowed up by all the added
production. To me, it was always about spontaneously running into
Mary Lou, singing away at the Red Line T stop or in Harvard Square
during warm weather.
Which is the whole point of her new CD, Mary Lou Lord LIVE: City
Sounds, a collection of covers that have become
requested favorites amongst her fans, along with "His Lamest Flame,"
a song she co-wrote with Nick Saloman (her long-time collaborator and
friend) and a studio interpretation of Daniel Johnston's "Speeding
Motorcycle," which I understand appeared in a Gap ad, of all places.
The ingenious thing about "City Sounds" is in its production; Mary Lou
bought a portable DAT recorder, set it up when she played the subway and
Harvard Square, recorded herself, and then returned the DAT recorder to the
store for a refund. Simple. Vocals and guitar with a smattering of crowd
noise that makes a listen even more real, even more of a document of what I
believe Mary Lou Lord does better than just about anybody.
I've considered comparisons to Joan Baez (whose voice I can only take in
tiny doses), because of her knack for interpreting classic songs. If
you doubt me, listen to Lord's well-worn rendition of Richard
Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," or Alex Chilton's Big Star
teen ballad "Thirteen," or a beautiful and completely unique take on
Springsteen's "Thunder Road." Other songwriters represented on this
collection include the Magnetic Fields, Shawn Colvin, The Pogues, Bob
Dylan and Sandy Denny.
City Sounds was a self-release that sold for ten bucks on the
it got picked up by Rubric Records, who plan to continue to release her
music, including a planned studio album.
There's a quote in the liner notes by Eliza Carthy, a young British
folk singer, that sums Mary Lou's work up nicely: "Traditional music
is a blank page. You can never imagine what the person who sang an
old song originally sounded like, but interpreting it is not
that academic a process. Once the song is in your mouth, its just
going to come out the way you are."
There are those who wave off musicians who don't write original tunes. Mary
Lou Lord is a shining example of the talent that is required to delve into
the vaults of rarely heard and welcome gems and make them something all her
own. In the folk tradition, her method is nothing new. In the world
of "indie rock," it's a brash statement, and not one that many could
The thing is, every time I see her at Park Street, I always end up
getting home late.