"Sad songs cheer me up," said Diana Jones at Club Passim Sunday night. "I'm hoping they cheer you up, too."
If not, then at least the audience couldn't say it wasn't warned. It was right there in the name of the show - "Songs of Sorrow and Salvation From the American South" - and Jones and Mary Gauthier came prepared to bring the house down, one way or another.
Jones took the first solo set, switching between a standard acoustic and her cherished four-string tenor guitar. Singing in a throaty warble, she devoted songs to a doomed coal miner's letter to his wife as the air runs out (the affecting "Henry Russell's Last Words") and the practice of stripping Native American children of their culture and religion (the gentle "Pony," which also dealt with the bond between father and daughter). But she leavened the mood between songs with a touch of dry humor, as when she introduced "Cracked and Broken" as an anomaly for her, a love song where nobody dies.
Gauthier took over from Jones after a half hour and brought with her a cracked voice that made her seem as though she was constantly on the verge of confiding some bitter secret.
She also had a slightly more caustic sense of humor, which led her to occasionally spend more time prefacing her songs than singing them.
For "The Last of the Hobo Kings," she marveled at the fact that hobos filled online message boards with memories of the monarch in question, while "Sideshow" seemed as if it were simply validating her disastrous tale of co-writing it with a stranger.
There was another simple and subtle, but profound, difference between Gauthier and Jones: Jones, for the most part, wrote in minor keys, while Gauthier performed primarily major-key material. That meant that Gauthier's downcast lyrics played against their happy-sounding backdrops, which may have been why, as she explained, people always laughed at the deeply sad "I Drink."
Different approaches aside, Jones eventually strolled down the aisle plucking her tenor guitar on her way to joining Gauthier onstage for "Mercy Now." That transformed the song into a three-dimensional one when nobody had realized that everything before then only had two, and the show gained an unanticipated richness from that point.
Bleakly funny but also just plain bleak, Jones's "If I Had a Gun" led to Gauthier's country lullaby "Twilight," and it quickly became clear how well the two complemented each other, from their guitar styles - Jones flatpicking, Gauthier fingerpicking - to their flawed individual voices melding in heart-tugging harmony.
If you have to sing songs of sorrow, they seemed to say, it's best to do it together.