Chris While and Julie Matthews – Purcell Room, London
22 November 2000
By Ellen Rawson
The saying goes that “if wishes were horses, then dreamers would ride.” Well, if Chris While and Julie Matthews were “name” acts, their songs would be chart material in the UK and perhaps even the US. The pair write and perform politically savvy, witty commentary in addition to some of the most heartfelt love songs recorded today (and covered by performers such as Mary Black).
“We’re going back to Australia,” Matthews announced, and she told the story of their first expedition there. They’d left behind “gales here” and arrived to 45-degree Celsius highs in Perth. “That’s the setting on my oven!” Matthews exclaimed, joking that she could bake meringues at that temperature. The introduction became more serious when she mentioned that they’d traveled to Tasmania. While then picked up the tale, noting how so many London prostitutes in previous centuries had been arrested and shipped to Tasmania.
While there are so many songs, folk songs in particular, about male transports, they “thought we’d do one from a women’s point of view.” With Matthews on acoustic guitar, While started vocalizing the intro to “10,000 Miles.” Her voice filled the hall; the Purcell Room, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, is a good-sized venue, and her voice, featuring a sweet vibrato, fits it from wall to wall. It’s a seemingly effortless flow that’s not overpowering, yet its natural strength and its evocative dramatic qualities are perfect for such an emotional song. Matthews joined in on harmonies, and her guitar sometimes felt like a drumbeat marching the prisoners along.
Matthews sometimes also draws on British history for her songs. “Jewel in the Crown,” recorded by Fairport Convention, concerns British imperialism. While performing in Africa, she noted that it was “never more apparent that British imperialism is alive and well in the world than in Kenya.” Her audiences generally were filled with British ex-pats, with scarcely a non-white face in the crowd. Both women started to rock as they as they played acoustic guitars and sang Matthews’ biting, cynical political commentary.
“Every Word We Speak Sounds Like Goodbye” allowed Matthews to move to keyboards while While sang lead vocals. It’s a deeply felt slow ballad about the end of a relationship. Although the melody seems simple, it says a lot. It is the type of song that could be chart material if only While and Matthews were better known or if the “right” name artist covered it.
While invited the audience to sing along on their closing number, “The Freedom Song.” (Matthews jokingly interjected a requirement of “only if you sing in tune.”) Matthews taught the crowd the simple chorus (“We’ll know freedom then), and they were off. Matthews voice, nicely curved with rough edges, blended in well with While’s on the chorus; their vocals sound like liquid silver when they harmonize. They ended the song with Indigo Girl-like harmonies and earnest optimism joyfully presented to an appreciative audience.
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