She may not get all the press in America that Lucinda Williams, and, lately, Jason Isbell, receives but Australian-born Kasey Chambers is drawing sell-out crowds at virtually all the clubs she's playing on a brief, 14-venue and rare U.S tour supporting a great, rave-reviewed new album, Bittersweet. She is perhaps best known here for her 1999 debut solo CD, The Captain,which is that rare thing in popular music: a totally perfect album, with each song a gem, especially rare for one's first major solo outing. In that regard, it ranks with Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True and Lucinda Williams' first CD with Rough Trade records in the 1990s, Lucinda Williams, which was packed with classics such as "Side of the Road" and "Passionate Kisses." Similarly, Kasey''s first album is filled with masterpieces that her fans -- and critics -- cherish, including "This Flower" and the title track, "The Captain."
That album, as with her new one, showcases her startling, high sweet voice married to gorgeous melodies and hooks, and finely crafted lyrics. This time around, in her first solo album in four years, she's broadening her palette to include more soul and blues-influenced shadings into her work, and at a recent show at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, she wowed the packed audience with a tour through her rich repertoire of songs -- and introduced new, unrecorded ones as well. She also adds touches of spirituality with strong white country gospel sounds in a stand-out love song from the new CD, "Oh Grace," done gospel quartet-style live, and a song filled with questing spiritual longing, "Is God Real," that could be an outlier song that takes the music world by storm, as did Joan Osborne's "What if God Was One of Us."
Unlike the short, black-haired semi-goth look she's sported on recent album covers, the new post-divorce Kasey Chambers wore a brown and white body-clinging dress and long brown hair that reinforced her on-stage and off-stage manner as an easygoing, good-time Aussie gal singing for her mates that is at odds with the sensitivity and artistry of her songs. She was especially happy to be singing because she had vocal cord surgery to remove nodes and had to be quiet for two weeks, and not sing at all for eight weeks before going on her U.S. tour. Her voice was now in great shape, and she delighted in breaking into country-style falsetto to add power to her vocals.
She played in perfect sync with her amiable father as lead guitarist on slide and dobro; he's a professional hunter, country music-loving man's man, who led the family as a touring country band in the wilds of Australia for most of her youth. She opened with a near a cappella version, before the band joined her, of her CD's first single, Wheelbarrow, that has swamp-like undertones in a song that could be a tribute to her new young lover in his 20s. "He's barely old enough to vote," she laughed from the stage.
Her new video shows that the 40-year-old still has all the vocal grace she had as a young woman when she wrote her first big hit, "The Captain," at 17. The added rock power on some songs doesn't detract from the song's melodic pull, or the gentle ballads that are filtered throughout her show.
In New York, she played Saturday afternoon for free at a concert that started at 2 p.m. (she went on as the headliner at 4 p.m.), at an outdoor Americana festival at Lincoln Center that drew fans from the entire metropolitan area, after her sell-out show at the Winery in New York Friday night. On Sunday, she played Boston. Listen Up, America: Kasey Chambers in the United States is an event that shouldn't be missed. She ends her tour, after a few Midwestern stops, in Los Angeles August 15th. At her Birchmere show, and at all her of stops, she also takes care to sing the songs that made people fall in love with her in the first place, such as "The Flower":
Near the end of the show, she offered in a modest, self-effacing way a few new songs, and while they were all good, one is a standout torch song of a woman scorned that ranks with "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," from Dreamgirls. This was a smoky, soulful new ballad from this Aussie country singer that would be a smash for an R&B diva like Mary J. Blige or might be found in the unreleased master tapes in the vault of Janis Joplin. (Note to record label: get to work plugging it to singers so she can get some lucrative royalties before she records it herself.) It's so new that she and her back-up band -- including two young men she saw playing in a pub and asked to join her tour -- didn't know the name of it and hadn't yet played it in public before. She leaned her head back, drums punctuating each emphatic declaration as she clenched her fists, and sang out in a soaring voice, "I won't cry,I won't break, I won't ache, I won't beg...No,I ain't no little girl." The audience went nuts and gave her a standing ovation. It was a sign of the song's impact that everyone knew immediately that this was yet another masterpiece from a singer and songwriter still at the top of her game -- although no one had ever heard it before. How often does that happen in concert?
She proclaimed that the Birchmere was her favorite place to play in the U.S., and for that night, it seemed real enough. She showed it in the way her near-delirious joy in singing to us was matched by the effusive standing ovations she received from the audience. And, if you live in cities from Ann Arbor to Los Angeles, you've got less than a week left to catch her singing live before she goes back to Australia and the three kids she's raising --and the rest of us should be glad to snap up her new album until she comes back to to your town. The raves on Facebook from her excited fans are a testament to the response she generates with songwriting excellence and passion in performance that is so hard to find these days, except, perhaps, in the shows by her very few peers in this field, including Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin and, of course, the great Lucinda Williams.
UPDATE: Kasey Chambers' remaining concert dates:
August 11 -- Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Ark
August 12 -- Evanston, Illinois, Space
August 13 -- Minneapolis, Cedar Cultural Center
August 14 -- Lyon, Colorado, Rocky Mountain Folks Festival
August 15 -- Los Angeles, El Rey Theatre
For more information on her tour and tickets, videos, bio, albums, reviews see: http://kaseychambers.com/