Chess Countess

30 November, Common Room
By Anna Soutar

The evening is a set of contradictions. We are in familiar Hastings East End, on a Friday night in early summer. But the ebb and flow of gossip and laughter is different somehow: is it because the bar has had a scene change and tonight there is cool white walls and Caribbean cocktails on one side, the dear old stuffed couches and mad collection of wall furniture banished to the other? The bar clientele is undeterred, keeping up a steady orchestration of loud and soft voices counterpoint to the stage action.

Punk-girl is playing gently on a keyboard while around her a sound man does whatever a sound man does – he keeps doing it from time to time throughout the evening – another is taking pictures and the third strokes the percussion box he is sitting on. Punk-girl judges the time has come and she roars into song, waking up the cajón-box man and we pay attention. For this is the Chess Countess and she is in control. She plays the keyboard like the Skipper of the Enterprise.

Those eyes, ringed with kohl and swept up and out across the white face; that hair shaven in parts, twisted and coiled into a top knot of wool like an over-knitted beanie so that an escaping thread hangs over one shoulder (how does she manage that?) Black lipstick, a beauty spot. All the references jar in this post-modern construct.  At the floor her docs tap and shiny Magyar pants keep the punk style alive. A bush shirt casually tied at the waist declares her in the home team. And the music? Is it punk rock? Is it hell! She sings anything and everything but it is not punk.

Ah Countess you have brought home traces of left-over culture from your London sojourn. Yet in all this signage, your performance – and it is a performance: unpretentious, calm, very much in charge – is a set of contradictory messages.

Punk-girl does not bash and squeak her way across the keyboard. Tammy the Chess Countess fingers it and strokes and gently caresses it. The percussion is not a set of drums, no kitchen-sink of surfaces to discipline into noise. It’s a box, just a box with the longest straightest fingers meeting the music of the Countess.

Punk-girl stands at her machine-piano and sings. This is a well-disciplined voice. It does what it is told, up and up, up to very high notes, down down to the very low, whether torch song or lullaby.

Some of what she sings – the best bits in my humble opinion, are her own composition. This is when she really lets that voice out to run wild. Others more reined in are music from both famous and unknown. The Beatles, Cold Play, musical theatre, little known new talent. Her songs come from all over, around a world of musical theatre, and each one is a story, to be performed and laid out for the audience. In this she works the mic, the audience and especially her voice. She has an amazing range, from deep throaty growl to dainty high soprano, all well controlled. I had the feeling there were even more notes she could have used on us. I waited for that, for the off-planet operatic of the alien opera star from that film The Fifth Element, but that will have to wait for next time. Come back Countess , bring the long fingered box man Will, show us what you sing in other lands to other audiences, don’t forget to return.

The Common Rom ambience is hard to ignore. The awkward bumbling Friday night pub crowd is gawky and rowdy, but listening and sometimes hearing this vocal mountain range of power responds by going quiet. Until the clapping starts and then they all hoot and holler, like cowboys.


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