There’s no pretence with Mary Coughlan – what you see is what you get; but more importantly, what you hear is the truth. She doesn’t have the power or the rich vibrato of Sarah Vaughan, she can’t scat like Ella Fitzgerald, nor does she have the refined innovative jazz virtuosity of a Carmen McRae. But like her idol, Billie Holiday, what Coughlan possesses in spades is an honesty and lived-in quality born out of the good times, but more often, by the sorrows left from broken relationships, alcoholism and even a stint in Galway’s notorious mental asylum, Ballinasloe.
The show was a mix of Coughlan originals, songs written by collaborators and material mined from the archives. Yet it all blended into a compelling narrative of love lost and lust pursued, without a hint of regret or recrimination. Vocally, Coughlan (even with her prominent Irish brogue) transports you back to the smoky nightclubs of the depression. Her tone is guttural and deep and rises from the boot straps.The woman has impeccable taste and resurrected songs I thought that I would never hear again live such as Jack Teagarden’s Meet Me Where They Play the Blues or Holiday’s own Billie’s Blues and Maybe You’ll Be There.
Backed by Matt McMahon on piano and Brett Hirst on upright bass, the Irish chanteuse unashamedly bared her years of ‘acting the maggot’ as her father described it, that reaped two failed marriages, financial ruin, artistic exile, excessive drinking – but ultimately redemption – accompanied by a wry wisdom and awareness that she was lucky to survive. There was no guilt nor regret evident in the saucy and innuendo-riddled original I Want to be Seduced, her bold rendering of her friend and contemporary Kirsty MacColl’s Bad and a Belgian (not Brel) song about a ménage à trois (Friend of Mine). It’s hard to imagine that Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart could get any darker, but Coughlan’s adagio adaptation made it so. Finishing with her favourite song, the classic ballad I would Rather Go Blind written and made famous by blues/soul mama Etta James before becoming a modern standard. Coughlan showed why records can never replace the heartfelt connection that comes from the live experience and connection with an artist.