In April 2010 I wrote on this blog (I try not to use the verb “blogged”, it being an even uglier word than the brutish-sounding noun from which it springs) about a concert by the very talented Jess Chambers at the rural Wairarapa home of Simon Burt and Pip Steele. That was the first of what is evolving into a series of occasional “house concerts” organised by Simon after he tired of attending public performances where oafish members of the audience loudly talked among themselves and generally ignored the entertainer they had ostensibly turned up to see. Simon gets around that problem by issuing invitations to people he can rely on to respect the performer. This doesn’t mean the house concerts in the big old hilltop home at Ahiaruhe take place in an atmosphere of monastic solemnity; far from it. But it does ensure an appreciative audience, and so it was with last night’s concert by Auckland-based country singer Donna Dean – one of her last New Zealand performances before she moves to Melbourne.
This was the third of the Ahiaruhe house concerts. The one in between was by rising singer-songwriter Mel Parsons, which I attended but didn’t write about. This was sheer indolence on my part rather than any reflection on Parsons’ performance, which was exemplary.
Dean is no less a revelation than Chambers and Parsons were, though in different ways. I was ashamed to realise that this immensely gifted singer and songwriter has performed to huge crowds in Europe and the US – and wrote the title track for Destination Life, a Grammy Award-nominated album by American bluegrass singer Rhonda Vincent – yet remains virtually unknown in her own country. This no doubt explains why she’s leaving.
She also operates in a generally darker, grittier and more traditional genre than the alt-country songbirds of the Chambers-Parsons generation, whose music can loosely be categorised as melodic pop with a country inflection (or, if you prefer, melodic country with a pop inflection). Dean is older and her life clearly hasn’t always been easy. Introducing her songs she mentioned a period in rehab, a loved brother who died young and a childhood visit to her father in Mt Eden Prison.
Her life experience has been distilled into songs that convey an oxymoronic impression of brittleness and vulnerability combined with quiet strength. One of Dean’s songs was inspired by her regular visits to an Auckland acute mental health ward where she entertains the patients; it reminded me of Johnny Cash’s Committed to Parkview. Another, Silent Lie, powerfully and painfully explored infidelity and betrayal; a third recalled the drinking binges that preceded her admission to rehab in the late 1980s.
But it’s not unremittingly dark. Dean also performed an engagingly whimsical children’s song that had the 40-strong audience singing along (and an unusually tuneful lot they were, due no doubt to Simon Burt’s judicious filtering and the number of musicians present).
She frequently dipped into the mainstream country repertoire too. Last night’s set included songs by Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, the country standard Tennessee Waltz, Johnny Mullins’ Blue Kentucky Girl (popularised by Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris) and Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You. She even made a foray into soul with Dan Penn’s Do Right Woman.
Dean plays a beautiful 1994 Gibson acoustic guitar that she inherited from her late mother, who played rhythm guitar for the famed Auckland Polynesian bandleaders Bill Sevesi and Bill Wolfgramm. She told how her mother – clearly a profound influence – had an unfulfilled lifelong ambition to visit the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and laughed at the memory of smuggling some of her mum’s ashes into the US and scattering them outside the revered country music venue.
Nashville’s influence is obvious in Dean’s singing and songwriting. You can hear Texas, Kentucky and Oklahoma in her songs, just as you can detect faint echoes of singers like Trisha Yearwood, Nanci Griffith and Suzy Bogguss. Yet there’s nothing cringingly derivative in her performance. She’s recognisably a Kiwi girl who just happens to have found, in the American country music tradition, the perfect vehicle for expressing herself.
Dean was accompanied last night by Whangarei luthier Steve Evans on mandolin and Derek Burfield of Wellington on upright bass. Evans played with fluency and assurance but Burfield was clearly unfamiliar with Dean’s songs, which detracted from an otherwise memorable performance. Being roped into a pickup band at short notice is always challenging and there were times when I felt Dean would have been a lot more comfortable with just Evans behind her.
Footnote: Donna Dean performs tonight at the Wellington Bluegrass Society, 54 Richmond St, Petone, at 8pm. Phone (04) 477 0069 to check whether tickets are still available.