Last night I was privileged to attend, along with about 40 others, a concert by the luminously talented Wellington singer and songwriter Jess Chambers. Of course 40 people would normally be a pitiful turnout, but this was a concert with a difference. It was held in the Wairarapa home of Simon Burt and Philippa Steele and the audience consisted of invited (paying) guests, all known to the hosts and mostly members of the rapidly growing Wairarapa community of refugees from Wellington.
It was the first such concert I’d attended, but the concept isn’t new. Some of us can recall an era when people frequently arranged concerts in their own homes, though usually the performers were family and friends rather than professional entertainers. Most homes seemed to have a piano then, husbands and wives often sang together (my parents did), and even if you couldn’t sing or play an instrument, well, reciting a poem was fine.
Television killed off that charming tradition, but attempts have been made to revive it. In Greytown, Ed and Juliet Cooke frequently host classical recitals in their home – though again, by paid performers rather than amateurs. Simon and Philippa simply extended the concept to a different musical genre.
Which brings me to Jess Chambers and her talented accompanist, Peter Hill. This was an act perfectly suited to the intimacy of the venue, a big old home that would almost certainly have hosted similar entertainments in its long distant past.
Chambers plays guitar and sings. Hill backed her with great subtlety and empathy on electric guitar and mandolin, filling out the sound with layers of texture. Several in the audience drew comparisons with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and the analogy was apt. Not only was the lineup similar but the repertoire too; in fact some of the warmest applause was for Chambers’ rendition of the Gillian Welch song Elvis Presley Blues. Like Welch and Rawlings these two had the ability, with just two instruments, to keep their audience engaged – entranced is not too strong a word – for the better part of two hours; long enough to just about exhaust their repertoire.
Chambers came to prominence as member of the Woolshed Sessions, a loose coalition of musicians whose name is taken from the album they recorded last year in a woolshed near Takaka. But no one should doubt her ability to carry off a solo performance. Her repertoire includes some very appealing songs of her own – songs that are alternately wistful, quirky and witty – along with a slew of cover versions. Besides the aforementioned Elvis Presley Blues these included Neil Young’s Harvest Moon – Young would surely approve – and Chrissie Hynde’s Don’t Get Me Wrong. To each of these she brings a fresh interpretation, effectively making them her own. Chambers has an immensely appealing voice – gutsy and assertive one moment, full of poignant yearning the next. I was constantly reminded of Jonatha Brooke, whose 1997 album 10 Cent Wings is still one of my favourites. But Chambers is doubly blessed because as well as being indecently talented, she’s also very pretty. In the unlikely event that you tired of her music, you could just look at her.
Between songs, she indulged in engaging, slightly shy banter in a hybrid accent – part Kiwi, part American – that was explained when she said she had a New Zealand father and an American mother and spent some of her formative years in California, where she acquired her taste for country music.
Ah, there’s that loaded term again: country music. I would guess there were people at last night’s concert who wouldn’t describe themselves as country music fans, because the term has acquired such negative connotations. But Chambers demonstrated just how broad and all-encompassing the genre really is.
My thanks to our hosts for a terrific night. I hope there will be more.