Kasey Chambers is a glowing example of how an abundance of talent and charm doesn’t guarantee popularity, at least not the amount of popularity a person seems rightfully due.
Friday night, Chambers, a singer-songwriter from the wilds of Australia, performed her first-ever show in Kansas City. She drew a crowd of about 200 to the Garage at Knuckleheads, a decent-sized crowd for someone whose lone recognition by the music world in the United States has been two Americana Music Awards nominations (and those were eight years ago) but a small turnout for someone who has released some of the best roots/country albums of the past 18 years.
Chambers is touring on “Dragonfly,” her 11th studio album, released this year. Like its predecessors, it showcases a songwriter with considerable lyrical gifts, a knack for composing melodies that stick and linger and an expressive voice that has matured in all the right ways.
She waited a bit to get to that album Friday night, starting off instead with “Wheelbarrow,” a fetching track from her “Bittersweet” album. She followed that with “Not Pretty Enough,” a ballad that aroused some hearty singing-along from the crowd up front, especially among a troupe of women who looked to be in their mid- to late-20s. Chambers appeared genuinely surprised by all the singing, especially from a guy in the front row whom she described as a “tough guy with a beard.”
“I love this town,” she said. “It’s the most American place I’ve been to in my life.”
“Not Pretty Enough” is a track from “Barricades and Brickwalls,” Chambers’ second full-length, released in 2001. It was the follow-up to “The Captain,” her debut, released in 1999, which received rave reviews and which got a push in the U.S. when its title track was played over the end credits to a season three episode of “The Sopranos” in 2001.
Chambers’ early music, though, was apparently slightly ahead of its time for country radio programmers in America, though some of it sounds as girl-ready as some of Taylor Swift’s ensuing early material, which would break big nine years later. It also shares some of the qualities that made the Dixie Chicks a blockbuster act on country radio: traditional sounds coupled with contemporary attitudes.
Chambers is in her early 40s, a divorced mother of two sons and a daughter, and a songwriter who has lived an unconventional life, which she described in some detail before she launched into “Talkin’ Baby Blues,” a poem rife with clever lyrics – including a couplet that rhymes “transistor” with “Twisted Sister” – and spoken/sung old-school folk style in the Bob Dylan/Woody Guthrie tradition. Chambers recalled living out of a car for the first 10 years of her life with her parents in the remote outback of Australia, where there was no civilization, subsisting on the kangaroos and rabbits her father hunted and gathering around a campfire every night and singing songs, especially the songs of American country heroes like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons.
She has mastered that and other American traditions, like the Delta blues, which she showcased in songs like “Rattlin’ Bones” and “Crossfire.” As she expressed her fondness for America, she joked: “I come over here, steal your music, go home and pretend it’s mine, then come back here and sell it to you.”
Chambers was backed by two gents in their early 20s, guitarist Brandon Dodd and drummer Josh Dufficy who, back in Australia, perform as the roots/blues duo Grizzlee Train, who performed a song of their own.
She joked about their age differences, recalling the time she and Dufficy attended an Australian awards showand were photographed together, which created a mild scandal. Chambers’ reaction: I wasn’t bothered by being seen as a 40-year-old divorced mother with a 20-year-old boyfriend. I just didn’t want anyone to think I’d actually date a drummer.
The set list included two covers: a dandy country-folk version of Little Feat’s “Willin’,” and an even dandier version of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” recast as a country/Delta blues hymn.
Other highlights: “Captain,” which aroused another hearty sing-along; “A Little Bit Lonesome,” a country shuffle with a Hank Williams vibe; and “Is God Real,” a track, she explained, that was inspired by her teenage son, who is being reared by Chambers, who was raised a Seventh Day Adventist, and his dad, an atheist.
The peak of the 90-minute-plus set was her bloodletting rendition of “Ain’t No Little Girl,” a “Dragonfly” track that reopens the wound rendered by a heart-crushing breakup. The lyrics express hurt, defiance and anger, much of which Chambers expressed in a siren wail that recalled the soulful fervor of singers like Bettye LaVette or Janis Joplin. When she’d finished, she bowed deep to the crowd’s loud, sustained ovation, stealthily dabbing her eyes to wipe away a tear or two.
It was a moment that deserved wider appreciation, and one those who witnessed it are not likely to forget.
Wheelbarrow; Not Pretty Enough; This Flower; Rattlin’ Bones; Is God Real?; Pony; Crossfire; If I Died; A Million Tears; Georgia Brown; A Little Bit Lonesome; Grizzlee Train song; Willin’; Ain’t No Little Girl; Captain; Talkin’ Baby Blues; Seven Nation Army.