Saturday, July 9, 2011

Kasey Chambers @ The Iron Horse, July 7th, 2011

I’ve now been living in Portland, Maine for two weeks. For the purposes of my Sound of Blackbirds contributions, that means exchanging the Iron Horse for One Longfellow Square and the Calvin Theater for the State Theater. In fact, there are more possibilities for live music in the greater Portland area than there are in greater Northampton, as near as I can tell, but there’s nothing quite like the Iron Horse. And that’s one reason why, for my first concert in a couple of months, I drove three hours back to the Valley for another concert at that magnificent room.

The other reason is Kasey Chambers. I first heard of Kasey about 10 years ago. I recall sitting in my friend Joanna’s living room in Brooklyn, listening to her friends and roommates talk with great enthusiasm about the act that upstaged Lucinda Williams at her recent Roseland concert in the city. There was an album out called The Captain (2000), and a couple of them raved about it. I wasn’t sure what to make of these reports at the time; had I missed out on something big? Lucinda Williams is great, no doubt, but I had seen her be upstaged before, most notably in Baltimore, when her Shriver Hall performance felt remarkably flat after Patty Griffin torched the stage with her Flaming Red (1998) songs. And I’ve also seen her open for rocks icons—the Allman Brothers in 1999, Neil Young and Crazy Horse in 2003—in a way that didn’t do justice to her own greatness. Lucinda Williams (1988) and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998) will always be great albums, but…I digress.

I got the answer to my question when, in early 2002, I attended an acoustic WFUV-sponsored Kasey Chambers performance at the Museum of Television and Radio in midtown Manhattan. She was touring to promote Barricades and Brickwalls (2002), but I don’t think I had heard an album of hers yet. I went to the show on the recommendation of Joanna and in the company of her friend Marisa. As I type this, I’ve accessed an audio recording of that performance, available from the WFUV archives, and it sounds fabulous. What I remember best is hearing a song that I figured had to be an old Hank Williams song that she’d updated slightly and being pleasantly surprised to learn that “A Little Bit Lonesome” was a Kasey Chambers original. I also remember being completely floored by her natural instrument; her voice, I mean. Listening back today, hearing her perform “On a Bad Day” makes me wonder why I haven’t been a huge fan ever since. But the whole performance was wonderful, and so was meeting her and getting her autograph after the show.

Even after that, however, the real breakthrough for me was seeing her with Annie in the fall of 2004 at Irving Plaza with her full band. There, she rocked. I had only listened to Wayward Angel (2004) once or twice before the show but, afterwards, I began listening to it constantly. The Irving Plaza show featured not only great songs from each of her three albums, but fantastic covers of Lucinda Williams’ “Change the Locks,” harsh and rocking, and Neil Young’s “Comes a Time,” slow and acoustic with lush harmonies from her bandmates.

And it was Annie who I took with me to see Kasey on Thursday night. This was the first time she's accompanied me to an Iron Horse show since we saw Dar Williams there in the fall of 2009, as detailed here. She drove 90 minutes or so from Vermont, I drove 3 hours from Maine—the longest drive I’ve ever taken for a concert. Since Kasey doesn’t come to the states all that often any more, I figured this could be the last chance we’d have to see her for a long time. It turns out that Kasey is 6 months pregnant with her 3rd child.

Before she took the stage, her bandmate and father Bill Chambers entertained us with about 20 minutes of solo guitar and songs. The originals—“Theresa,” “South-end Rain,” and, best of all, “Drifting South”—worked just fine, but I was particularly impressed by the two covers. First came Mary Gauthier’s “I Drink,” which I haven’t listened to in a long time and elicited some laughter, just like I remember it doing over 10 years ago when I first heard Mary play it (opening for Richard Shindell at the Bottom Line). It’s actually a deeply serious song, about alcoholism and selfhood, and the laughs were in the same vein as the laughter that Loudon Wainwright elicits with his best material. And then there was a Fred Eaglesmith song called “Just Dreaming,” which I had never heard before. The mood of the song was interrupted a bit by an Iron Horse waitress who starting topping off my water glass without noticing that I had hard cider, not water, in the glass. But whatever. By the time the music had begun, the show had sold out, and even watered down cider couldn’t dilute my excitement.

Kasey Chambers hit the stage at about 7:35 with her band and launched a couple of songs from her new album, Little Bird, out into the room. I didn’t know these songs, but they were delicious, especially one that, I’ve since learned, is called “Beautiful Mess.” After that, the band leaned into “Last Hard Bible” from her first album, The Captain (2000), drawing big applause and, from there, she and her band took us through songs from each of her albums, with a focus on the new one, and included some ace covers along the way (including a Nancy Griffith song that I didn’t know). From the opening song, her huge voice filled the room and

Her band is sharp. Along with her immensely talented father, a second guitar player was onstage, Michael Muchow, and so was a beautiful 18 year old fiddler, Ashleigh Dallas, who was, in her own shy, rather endearing way, having the time of her life on-stage. This was, it turned out, her first time in the United States. Kasey assured us that she’d done her best to acclimate Ashleigh to American culture…by having her watch the complete My Name is Earl DVD set. Michael Muchow didn’t talk much, but he smiled and laughed at Kasey’s gags. After a particularly long story from Kasey, Michael discovered that his gear wasn’t yet ready for the next song. He fiddled with it a bit and said, into the microphone, “It’s not like I haven’t had enough time to get it ready.” That crack drew some of the hardest laughter not only from us, but from Kasey, not to mention Ashley, whose eyes widened in delighted shock at that comment. The band's accompaniment was functional, direct, and to the point. Not many solos. One song, whose title I did not catch, was a Bill Chambers-Ashleigh Dallas co-write, and it was really good. Michael had only recently learned the banjo, Kasey told us, specifically to play with her on tour. He did fine, and so did Ashleigh.

Kasey was a charming, gracious hostess. She and her band were really happy to be there. Really happy. And by "there," she meant the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts. She reported that this is one of her very favorite venues in the world, a place that she talks about and yearns for playing even while they’re on the other side of the world. She joked about her pregnancy, noting that “getting knocked up” was one of her only skills outside of playing music. She told stories about her band, her travels, her children. She was cheerful and upbeat and impossible not to warm to.

Her newest album, Little Bird, is already out in Australia, and it will appear in the US next week. Based on what she played Thursday night, I sense it’s a great one. Along with “Beautiful Mess,” there was a song called “Nullarbor (The Biggest Backyard)” about her childhood, growing up in the Australian desert, a theme she first addressed in “The Nullarbor Song,” from Barricades and Brickwalls. All told, she sang half a dozen songs from Little Bird, and they all sounded great to me.

What else? She played “The Captain” alone on stage. There were a bunch of Barricades and Brickwalls songs—“On a Bad Day,” “Not Pretty Enough,” “Still Feeling Blue” (one of the highlights of the whole show), and, for the final encore, “Barricades and Brickwalls”—but only one song from Wayward Angel –“Pony.” As her band was getting in tune for “Pony,” someone from the audience asked if she would name her next child after Ralph Stanley, a reference to a line in the song. She laughed at that and talked about the problems with naming her second child, Arlo. She and the father had wanted to name him after a great songwriter. For the father, that meant Neil Young. But Neil didn’t seem quite right to them, particular given all the Neils in the world. So they decided they’d go with Neil Young’s middle name…until they learned that his middle name was Percival. “So that’s how we settled on Arlo,” she concluded, and we all laughed. Then, “Neil Young is the coolest guy in the world...but his middle name is Percival,” and we laughed even harder.

Toward the end of her set, she mentioned that Australians are not particularly into bluegrass music, so they had to be eased into it. That was her introduction to the band’s bluegrass medley: get-down arrangements of “Not Pretty Enough” and “The Captain,” leading into the Bee Gees' “Stayin’ Alive” and Michael Jackson's “Beat It.” This was corny, but it was also a lot of fun, particularly on account of how big and powerful the band sounds when Kasey leads them in harmony.

The set ended with “We’re All Gonna Die Someday” from The Captain, and upon returning to the stage for the encore, she assured us that there was no way she wasn’t going to return for another song or two. We could have already left, she told us, and they’d have been back to sing to the empty room. And then came a highlight of the evening, as the band played a slow, elegiac, mournful version of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” before finishing off the evening’s music with “Barricades and Brickwalls.”

Kasey is in the US through July 16th. See here for tour details. Seek her out, is my advice.


Ellen Stanley said...

I saw that first Captain tour in 2000, when I was visiting Minneapolis and thinking of moving here. Soo good, and she keeps getting better! Haven't explored much of Kasey's new album yet, although I did play a rockin' number on last week's train-themed Womenfolk!

Nick Toloudis said...

I listened to the new album for the first time on the ride to Falcon Ridge (and for the second time on the ride back to Maine). I think it's her best yet--there's not a bad track on it.