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December 19, 2006
Kaki King will always be recognized for her deft, percussive, yet sinuous use of the acoustic guitar, but she's taken that experience/success, logged it and decided to go in a new direction: she's gone electric, but she's getting a better response than Dylan did at the Newport Folk Fest of '65.

King's latest and third album, ...Until We Felt Red, released this summer via Velour (read the review here), features King's electric and eclectic musical abilities: she, along with producer John McEntire (Tortoise, Stereolab, The Sea and Cake), played the bulk of an array of instruments on the 13-track collection, which boasts the inclusion of everything from a distorted pedal steel and harsh drums to an array m'bira and a bowl of corn.

Since the album's release, King has been on the road with a band for the first time since being whisked from the subway to a solo career.

"It's very different for me," King said of her tour supporting ...Until We Felt Red. "There are a lot of challenges for me personally. I'm suddenly bombarded with so much more sound than ever before. But the guys really care; they're really amazing."

The guys to which King refers are keyboardist Dave Archer, drummer Matt Hankel, and Dan Brantigan on sound and flugelhorn.

"I'm playing electric now almost entirely. It's a good move because I've been sort of bored with what I've been doing in terms of (performance)."

In the past, King wowed the audience with her talents as a one-woman band, unashamedly taking liberties with the guitar that audiences weren't necessary used to seeing, at least from a female performer. She banged the body and slapped or cajoled the fret board with motions more familiar from the hands of Tori Amos.

Recently King has backed off a bit though, yet still remaining front and center. She adds her voice in the mix, albeit very, very low in the mix, weaving a complex work with the numerous strands of music, which range from random electric sounds to a wailing, lost-sounding flugelhorn, to hardcore drumming. ...Until We Felt Red presents a combination of King and McEntire's keen sense of atmosphere. Often, the result is very full and, at others, there is only a sparse, ghostly presence.

King described her songs, sans intricate and lavish instrumentation, as "skeletal... They weren't complete as I had thought about my songs before. I'd been writing them for quite a while. I realized they were going to have to be layered and fleshed out literally."

This new direction is a veering away from the solo acoustic path that brought her widespread attention and spots on late night television shows. For better or worse, "It ain't acoustic solo guitar no more," as King said playfully.

During her show at The Attic in Santa Cruz, California, during a stop on her last tour, King charmed the audience with her high, soft voice and hypnotizing electric melodies. Meanwhile, keyboardist Archer's contribution is an important one, offering King's sound a mood-lonely, ethereal and rocking, that matches the album to near perfection.

The performance is never too perfect though, thankfully - one of the best parts about live concerts is making a tangible connection with the humans behind the sound. And audiences can count on it. King's performances are a mixture of quaint imperfection, ostentatious attitude and a serious consideration of a classical, sprawling breed of alt rock.

The drummer, Matt Hankel, certainly makes his presence known, giving King's delicate tendencies a dramatic, dark background to stand out against, though her high, soft, and at times beautiful voice rarely wins out against the slam of drum sticks and the force of the kick drum.

"I'm suddenly bombarded with so much more sound that I've ever been used to," King said, singing the praises of her touring band. "The guys really care; they're really amazing."

The band wasn't the only sound she was competing with while in Santa Cruz though. The concert was held in a spot called The Attic, so named because it sits atop a bar that blasts heavy-bass dance tunes late into the night. The rumbling from beneath started near the end of the full band set, when King retired her entourage and embarked upon her solo acoustic and lap steel set. Undaunted, she played with the situation, at one point performing a song in sync with the booming bass' rhythm. It certainly made the experience unique.

One could expect it to be the same elsewhere. The band doesn't make set lists; instead, King said, "I tailor it to how the audience is feeling... that's where I go with the next song."

During the show King alternated between four beautiful guitars, but the audience was certainly awaiting the appearance of the electric-blue acoustic, as seen in the video for "Playing With Pink Noise," from her 2004 album Legs To Make Us Longer. When she did finally take out that old flame of an acoustic guitar, the audience became rapt in not only the music, but in King's movements. Her performance becomes exceptional. Words can't quite do it justice; she strokes the guitar, she mangles it, she bangs it, and oh does she strum it. The guitar is obviously her first love and she's not afraid of displaying her affection for it.

When she started out performing, in the subways of NYC, she "lost all fear of being aggressive with the guitar," and it shows.

"Some of what I do is pretty delicate, but some takes some force. Making people's heads turn around, because they're hearing something they haven't heard before on an acoustic guitar," King reminisced. "You never know how it's going to sound when you really push it as far as it can go. For me it never stopped sounding good."

The new direction King's pushing is partially a stepping back from that original classy-whilst-stentorian act, and partially a stepping out and into a world less focused on survival, of just being heard and more on the particulars of sound and atmosphere.

Even so, while her electric sound is no less melodic or rhythmic than past albums, there is a certain innate charm in her sparkling, acoustic queendom, which is recognized (and awaited for) by an audience. It is immensely compelling and immediate, gut-wrenching. The new sound is absorbing, but also a little bit distant.

This momentary eschew of singleton-ness, as I see it, shows King's willingness to change and explore the other areas within the kingdom of sonic possibility. As an artist King is not going to let herself or her sound get pigeon-holed; and more power to her. Such a choice is brave and suggests she has a long-lived and polyphonic career to come.

SEE ALSO: www.kakiking.com
SEE ALSO: myspace.com/kakiking

--
Sara Williams
Sara Williams writes and lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her life revolves around music, which she plays, listens to, thinks in, writes of and is absorbed by. She has a degree in creative writing from UC Santa Cruz, a school in a lovely little town between the forest and the sea. She argues a mean leftist politics with a sweet but sharp tongue and is happy to be lost at sea searching for an Octopusís Garden in the shade.

See other articles by Sara Williams.

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