You can’t get much farther south than Australia, so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that — despite Nashville’s collective reluctance to admit it — the purest new voice in country belongs to a petite, glitz-free lass from the land down under. Eschewing big production and big hair, Kasey Chambers used this stellar perf to serve notice that she needs nothing more than a bigger-than-the-Outback set of pipes to connect with a crowd.
The 23-year-old singer-songwriter is a purist in the mode of Iris DeMent and Lucinda Williams — although not quite as mannered as either — and her trilling vocal style owes a fair amount to the young Dolly Parton. But songs like the jauntily morbid reel “We’re All Gonna Die Someday” and the set-opening statement of purpose “Cry Like a Baby” (which revolves around the lament “I’m not much like my generation/their music only hurts my ears”) prove Chambers is very much her own woman.
Chambers’ easygoing manner and charming presence more than made up for an unflattering mix that buried practically everything but her vocals. That imbalance worked against the band on uptempo numbers like “Mr. Baylis” but actually helped emphasize the tear-jerking qualities of ballads like the poignant “This Flower.” Since today’s country has more in common with that ear-hurting sound than the genre’s roots, she may be swimming against the tide — but Chambers seems unlikely to go under any time soon.
By the time headliner Robert Earl Keen, the very model of the timeless Texas troubadour, hit the stage, patrons had hung Lone Star State flags from just about every available surface in the nitery. Keen wasted little time in concocting a soundtrack to match the decor, leading his tight-but-not-uptight combo through a passel of wistful rambles — like “Amarillo Highway” and “Corpus Christi Bay” — that left no doubt where he left his heart.
Keen isn’t merely a travelogue-monger, however. At his best — as on chill-inducing paeans like “Wild Wing” (set for release in June on his Lost Highway label) — he evokes a high-lonesome ache reminiscent of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, although Keen is decidedly less ethereal.
The end of the lengthy, well-paced set was given over to the singer’s earthier material, including a hooting run through “Merry Christmas from the Family” and a rendition of “The Road Goes on Forever” that had the windows rattling from the sheer volume of the sing-along.