Kaki King
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY

The instant Kaki King started playing, I was mesmerized. It happened all in a brief moment: a loud, milky voice said, "Hey guys," and before I had a chance to react, the first song had begun. The music seemed without direction, as if it were playing inside my head. My friends were making their way up the stairs to the balcony, but I staggered, paralyzed, my neck craned in the opposite direction so as not to break my gaze from what was occurring on stage.

Barely even seeming to touch the strings, Kaki King constructed an otherworldly sound, a beautiful tone that was difficult to believe was generated by someone’s fingers. Audio and video had not come close to conveying that which was occurring in front of me. The intricacies of her performance can only be perceived live, and the awe of the first experience, I discovered, can be completely overwhelming. A few minutes later I remembered where I was and suddenly noticed that, aside from a few people at the bar in the back, the entire audience was silent.

Later, a drunk person would occasionally blurt out inappropriate encouragement or shout “Call me, Kaki!” met immediately with a chorus of “Shhhhhhhhhh.” “There’s always that one guy,” smirked Kaki, about halfway through the show. This seemed to indicate not that her concerts are always disturbed by some drunkard, but rather that her audiences are usually as remarkably quiet and respectful as they were that night. Though there were times this audience got excited and cheered for a particularly difficult piece of guitar playing, more often it felt like the entire audience was lost in the music, as unaware of their surroundings as I.

The very intensity that cast a trance over the concertgoers made this a particularly difficult show to review. While paying the most attention to documenting the performance, I felt the least involved, though my lapses in attention were rarely voluntary. Many times, I became entranced by the sonic experience, forgetting to do anything other than stare and listen. As the song completed minutes later, I was released and able to scribble down a few notes but mostly reluctant to verbalize what I had just been involved in.

In a way, Kaki King is cursed by her talent. Her technique is so astounding that nothing she does can be as remarkable as playing solo on her Ovation. Inclusion of other instruments and overdubs creates an uncertainty that detracts from the fact that helps make her first album so astounding: that the sounds were created by a single human being and guitar. This is not to say that I do not enjoy any of her subsequent albums, rather that I would have given them a fairer evaluation had they been released by someone else.

This dilemma seemed somehow less relevant in a live setting. The presence of the other musicians removed the vagueness from the songs’ construction. More importantly, Kaki has chosen a strong group of instrumentalists to support her, and their communicative synergy is obvious. While I occasionally caught myself wishing I had seen Kaki’s solo tour in support of Everybody Loves You, when her inclinations towards pop melodies were lesser, songs like “Life Being What It Is” and “Pull Me Out Alive” swelled to life, far surpassing their album versions. And while I was once convinced that no musician could appropriately match Kaki in concert, the drummer’s performance on “2 O’Clock,” in which he and Kaki matched perfect thirty-second notes for some time, was enough to convince me otherwise.

Despite beginning with six straight tracks from Dreaming of Revenge, the concert felt remarkably varied. Familiar songs were given new life by interesting performances. During the already-absurdly-fast “Magazine,” Kaki pushed herself to speeds unheard on the album, until her hands were nothing but a blur. While she was friendly and funny, Kaki rarely spoke, allowing several songs to flow together. Near the end of the show, the band played environmental music while Kaki read the opening to Frank Herbert’s Dune. “They’re making a Dune movie,” she explained, “and I want to be in it.” The concert closed with “You Don’t Have To Be Afraid,” in a performance so beautiful that it could easily have stood without an encore. Of course, Kaki took every advantage of the encore, returning with a live-sampling pedal-steel solo performance of “Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers.” The band joined her once more to play an intense and lengthy version of “Doing The Wrong Thing,” after which I was sure the show was over. “We really love German Metal,” Kaki told the audience, before the band launched into an explosive cover of Bubonix’s “Fashion Tattoo.” It was the perfect ending to such a varied performance. If there had been one thing the audience was not quite sure that Kaki King was capable of, it was screaming, rocking, and playing twice as loud as the rest of the concert.

During the performance of “Magazine,” I began to wonder if this was the most incredible feat of guitar I had ever witnessed. As I stood outside on the sidewalk, I contemplated this again, just as Kaki King ran out of the venue and into her van. As her tiny body brushed by me, I noticed that she looked like she could have just has easily been one of the concert-goers now congregating outside and felt the same amazement that had originally drawn me to her music: those incredible sounds, the songs -- the entire experience -- had all somehow been born of that one human being.

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