13 March 2007
Guitar virtuoso is a profession that has been historically male-dominated. Merely hearing the term conjures up images of a long-haired Steve Vai noodling away on his Ibanez. Kaki King, however, is on the opening notes of a UK invasion in hopes of showing us all what a tiny girl can do. And based on 13 March's performance at the Borderline, her first in the UK, she is a force to be reckoned with...
As King came onstage, she marvelled at the size of the crowd. Due to the fact that none of her three albums have been released here, it says something that a packed crowd turned out to see this former street musician from NYC perform. After apologising to those in the back for her diminutive stature, King leapt into her opening song and the magic began.
The crowd, which had previously been talkative, was immediately silenced as everyone watched her fingers flutter across the strings. Her unique playing methods were in full force here. What separates King from other guitarists is the way in which she utilizes the instrument. Unsatisfied with leaving her left hand on the neck and her right hand on the body, her hands jump all across the strings. More importantly, her unique style involves using the guitar as a percussive instrument. King slaps, pounds, and shakes her guitar in order to coax it into making wholly unusual (and also totally awesome) sounds.
King's songs seemed to have different personalities based on which guitar she was playing. With the steel guitar, she would play a line and then loop it in order to gradually create denser and denser music. By the end of each song, the wall of sound grew deeply textured. The acoustic – which she beat like a drum more than the other guitars – and electric guitars were more about showcases of her technical wizardry. Though all three guitars saw her plucking away with her lengthy fake nails, she seemed to turn up the more immediately impressive qualities on these two. Those songs were more fun to watch, but really the most enjoyable songs were the steel guitar-based ones due to their more complexly layered sounds.
The most important thing about Kaki King's live show is that she simply looks like she's having fun. Between songs, she bubbled ebulliently as she rambled about her affinity for Britpop (especially Menswear), lavished praise on her girlfriend and fellow guitarist Kelli Rudick (who she brought onstage for a duet), or just plain charmed whoever in the audience was brave enough to speak up. What really impressed me, though, came towards the end of the first song. As it was on the steel guitar, she had spent quite some time looping layers atop layers atop layers, until finally the last layer was played. As she finished it, she looked positively gleeful in the knowledge that she had just perfectly completed the song. I only wish that every scowling hipster band would take a note from her.
Most heartening of all is the fact that she's not content to just pluck away on her guitars. The layered sound of the steel guitar is but one of several additions on her most recent album, …Until We Felt Red. She is now occasionally sharing with us her breathtakingly ethereal singing voice, and even incorporates a live band with drums and a keyboard in many of her shows in the States. At the centre, though, will always be this charming miniature guitar hero.
- Kevin Garnett