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When I first came across Mary Lou Lord, she was playing her acoustic for pocket change on a subway platform in Boston. It was my tendency in those days to ignore subway performers if I wasn't planning on anteing up a contribution -- and during those tight times, I usually wasn't. I learned my lesson the hard way after narrowly escaping a swarthy, possibly rabid, slide guitar player who chased me above ground brandishing his Telecaster and screaming, "if you watch, you gotta' pay!"

But Mary Lou seemed different. She didn't appear to notice the subway noise or the growing crowd of college kids who were littering the platform in a haphazard semi-circle around her mic stand. The sound of her voice and her flawless fingerpicking came and went with the trains. She just played and smiled big. Anyway, she was only packing an acoustic. I figured I could survive the blow if things turned nasty. So I sat and watched. Four trains passed, but Mary Lou's audience remained seated. Before I hurried off to catch the red-line outbound, I found a lonely dollar hiding in my back pocket and dropped it in her guitar case. She nodded in my direction and launched into a cover of Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."

Over the next few years, I caught several of Mary Lou's impromptu shows on street corners and subway platforms around Boston. By that time she had a full length and several EPs out on Kill Rock Stars. Wherever she popped up, she drew a crowd, kids who mouthed the words to her songs and shouted out requests. Sometimes her guitar case was open for donations, sometimes it wasn't. She came to play, the money didn't seem important.

Mary Lou's new album finds her back on the tracks busking and belting. Recorded live in Boston's Park Street and Harvard Square subway stations, Live City Sounds is about the closest you can get to catching Mary Lou on your commute, minus the pushy businessfolk and stale subterranean air. She lends her come-hither vocals and easy-does-it guitar melodies to a catalog of covers, from "Sayonara" (The Pogues) and "I Don't Want To Get Over You" (The Magnetic Fields), to "Thunder Road" (Springsteen) and "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" (Dylan). Tangling with the greats, as many subway troubadours insist on doing, is almost never a good idea, unless of course, you're Mary Lou Lord and you have more to contribute than a grunting, off-key impersonation of The Boss, and six months of guitar instruction with an aloof, balding hack who claims to have hung out with the Pixies back in the day.

Mary Lou's folky interpretations are not better than the originals; they're different, pared down, just a girl and a guitar. Most impressive is the way she takes charge of a cover song and makes it her own. Even "Thunder Road," which I've always considered the musical equivalent of testosterone, comes off with a decidedly female tone, a female who wants to get a piece from a girl named Mary, but a female just the same.

If you've got a few extra bucks, dig 'em out, and make a donation at your local record store. If not, hey, that's cool too.

-- Daniel Schulman

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[email protected] | February 2002 | Issue 23
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