If you’ve heard one thing about Kaki King, it’s probably that her unique style of playing guitar landed her on Rolling Stone’s list of “New Guitar Gods” back in 2006. But if you haven’t seen her perform live, you probably don’t know that she has an equally enthralling stage presence, laced with witty anecdotes and just enough cursing to keep things interesting.
On the last night of her Retrospective Tour, the Atlanta-bred guitarist performed to a small but eager crowd Monday night at the Howard Theatre. Celebrating 10 years since the release of her first album Everybody Loves You, King started the night with a set of her acoustic guitar songs and then transitioned to a second, rock-influenced set with her band.
When I turned 16 years old, I convinced my parents to buy me a guitar for my birthday. After a few weeks of dedicated practice, expensive lessons, and painful calluses, I came to a realization that my parents probably knew all along: there was no way in hell I was ever going to be any good at guitar. Like my older brother before me, and my dad before him, I accepted my genetically-mandated dearth of musical talent and turned my obsession to live music instead.
Seeing Kaki King with her guitar on stage, creativity and beauty abounding, only served to reassure me of my decision of many years ago. But it mostly made me damn grateful that no one convinced Kaki King to make a similar decision, despite her sometimes different and oftentimes experimental style.
King kicked off the night by playing Everybody Loves You from start to finish, with each song preceded by a quick story. The audience learned that “Steamed Juicy Little Bun” was a menu item on a local Chinese restaurant in the West Village (and that there was some controversy between friends over whether the emphasis was on “juicy” or “little”), and that she composed “Night After Sidewalk” upon being rejected at an open mic night. For those wondering, “Happy as a Dead Pig in the Sunshine” is one of her grandmother’s truisms for when she’s giddily happy. In case that wasn’t clear to anyone else.
After finishing Everybody Loves You, King rounded out the set with several tracks off of her second album Legs to Make Us Longer and her newest release, 2012’s Glow. “Magazine” was perhaps the best example of her intricate and fully personal style guitar. Her fingers commanded attention with the audience trying to keep up with the strumming, picking, and slapping as she used the entire guitar to create a beautiful and emotional song.
The Howard Theatre is a substantial venue, with a big stage that seems even bigger when the entire audience is seated and waiters are moving throughout. But with King concentrating so intensely on her music, she brings the viewers in, turning a small crowd in a big venue into an intimate, collective experience with everyone in the room truly focused on the music and the musician.
And this intimacy is precisely what made the second half of the set so jarring. After a short break – just five minutes – King came back on with two other musicians, a drummer and a trumpet and electronic valve instrument (EVI) player. As King explained, the EVI is a breath-controlled synthesizer trumpet. The band launched into a series of mostly upbeat, jazz or rock driven songs often with lyrics; it was quite a change from the first half of the performance. The sounds were big and the lights flashed, and it took a moment for the audience to figure out how to react.
Toward the end of the show, King thanked the audience for coming and then acknowledged, “I know when you come to a show of mine, you don’t really know what to expect. It’s the curse of being experimental.” The strongest songs of this set were those without vocals, with King focusing on her guitar and backed by the talent of the musicians on stage with her. Her voice just can’t quite keep up with her guitar skills.
But in the end, when I walked away from the Howard Theatre, the inconsistencies of the second half of the show faded away. I was there to see Kaki King play guitar, and for 15 songs at the beginning of the night, the audience was lucky enough to witness beautiful and captivating guitar compositions performed with charm and grace. As she told us in the encore, “I don’t know what the next decade will bring.” I don’t know either, but I hope it includes plenty of opportunities to hear Kaki King play the guitar, in the way only she can.