Thursday, March 27, 2008
"I don't believe you, you're a liar."
We saw Kaki King in San Francisco's Great American Music Hall on Wednesday night. My fandom, while fervid, is pretty half-baked--I have only one of her albums, 2004's incredible Legs to Make Us Longer--but I was nevertheless excited to finally see her perform. I wanted to see her hands dance like their own animals up and down the neck of her guitar; I wanted to be fooled by her magic to confirm that it wasn't the studio's; I wanted to believe, as I had after seeing Crooked Fingers and Iron & Wine, that I could be as good as that. And for the first three minutes or so, they did; and I was; and I did. Then the band started up.
Kaki King is beautiful. Her hair is cut short now and her physique is slight. Like a lot of instrumental musicians, when she starts to play she seems simultaneously larger and smaller. (It's like watching anyone enjoy the promise of a serious relationship, in which certain behaviors are occluded but others are given ample room for exercise.) If she seems happy enough to be performing, she also seems indifferent to performative clichés. Her body is nearly completely still; her face is turned down and shadowed. The effect of this stillness and concavity is vespertine: in the darkness she creates we follow her fluttering hands to wherever we're supposed to go. While her right hand establishes the tempo of our journey, her left imagines and describes a world around us.
I can't help thinking that if Kaki King's band comprised three women instead of three--there's no better word here than "dudes"--the strange mystery of her music would remain intact. Women might better understand the spirit seething in the quietude she creates. Her band discovers this spirit but misunderstands its essential, numinal quality; for them it's a brain, not a soul, and thus can be transplanted to any clumsy, lumbering body. The drummer beats 4/4 time; the guy on keyboards hits a button and the arena synth from "Welcome to the Machine" swirls inconsequentially into the ether; the guitarist riffs dully but loudly above the fray--all of which is to say, "It's alive!" As if it were moribund, rather than simply nocturnal, to begin with. The guys have come over to the party with flashlights and liquor not to share a sacrament but to amplify and distort it. It's funny that electrification only tames this music: Kaki King is much more feral and frightening on her own. In the harsh glare of amps and drums, it turns out that the ritual of fire in the night is just another boozy party in the backyard; and the unsettling darkness beyond the reach of music and reason, well, that's just the far wall of the room you're in.
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I realize I sound like a Dylan fan when he plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival, or blasted the audience at the Manchester Free Trade Hall Concert. (His response to the accusation, "Judas!", provides the title for this post.) I know that all those guys who felt betrayed then look petty and recidivist now. I've laughed at them in documentaries. I'm excited about Kaki King's new album, which sounds great on her MySpace page. And I'm excited by artistic experiment. But that doesn't mean that I can't mourn the loss (or the transformation) of something I thought was wonderful and unique. Or that there really isn't something sinister about these three dudes crashing the party.