Kaki King at the Howard Theater

Guitar virtuoso Kaki King performs at the Howard Theater in DC. Photo: Kaki King

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2013 —In 2003, Kaki King released her debut album Everybody Loves You. It has been 10 years now since that album came out, but her fans still remember it well. Perhaps that is why the first half of her recent show at DC’s Howard Theater was dedicated to playing that album from back to front straight through.

Throughout the entire night, and especially during her concert’s first half when she played selections from Everybody Loves You, there was a definite autobiographical feel to the way King presented her show. She wove her way through each song, relating to her audience the meaning behind the songs, the feeling that she carried into recording and writing them, and how some of those songs have affected her as a musician and a person today.

What is interesting about this approach is how the style of music Kaki King plays manages to turn the concept of her show on its ear. Kaki King is a guitar player in the strictest sense of the term. Whether she chooses to perform on acoustic, lap steel, or whatever else she might employ, it is still Kaki King. She has added some percussion over the years, but when she’s playing Everybody Loves You, it’s still strictly one woman and her guitar.

King points this out during her set, and it is one of things that makes both she and her sound unique, leaving her relatively alone in her specific genre. There are other virtuoso guitar players out there and who play primarily solo and without the merest hint of vocals, but the flavor of this genre is still predominantly male. King noted that during her early shows, as she performed this very same material, the people in attendance were still primarily guys and guitar aficionado, an insular crowd at best.

But this plays into the autobiographical, intimate feel of King’s show. She sets the mood during the interludes between songs, setting up each song by noting how it added to her development as a songwriter. Singer/songwriters have an easy time with this kind of show. While Kaki King shares certain similar traits, the audience focuses on her in a way that transcends this kind of folksiness and informality.

This makes King’s show an infinitely more interesting prospect. Aside from having different guitars ready for to play in the swanky setting of the newly restored Howard Theater, the feeling she gives isn’t that different from someone busking, likely because her selections generally got their start in the New York subway tunnels back in the day. This allows her to vary her performance methodology considerably during her set, giving distinctly different impressions with every song. 

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She also employs different methods and tricks, not just in her playing but also in her tuning in order to build songs that work on several different levels. Her guitar playing works from the ground up, based on each song’s construction. What she’s able to accomplish on guitar is impressive, projecting a taut and cohesive structure during each of her songs.

Coupling this approach with the way she is able to meld anecdotes into her performance gives King’s live set extra depth.  Providing a context for each song, she brings out the underlying themes of each song and how everything ties together.

After her first set focusing on Everybody Loves You plus select solo additions followed by a brief intermission, King added percussion to her second set. The emotional resonance was stronger in her first set, but the addition of percussion in Act II not only told us where Kaki King came from as a songwriter, but how she has progressed since then to become the musician that she is today. 

It is hard to imagine a songwriter being able to lay her story out for the audience to hear without vocals. The lone exception is the secret song from Everybody Loves You, where she coerces the audience into meowing. But that is what Kaki King accomplished at the Howard Theater. She is essentially telling her story the only way that makes sense to her.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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