by Geno Thackara
First she gives the guitar a couple firm taps. With each one, a small jiggly blob of white light appears near her hand and then fades away in a moment. Next she scratches her fingernails around its surface, leaving glowing trails behind like afterimages inside your eyelids. After a couple minutes, she starts actually plucking strings in a slow simple pattern. Spirals of light appear in green and blue across the guitar, swirling around and overlapping each other once new notes get played. Soon a grid of dots appears on the backdrop screen behind the stage, which start vibrating and bunching up in response to the sounds coming from the strings. Clearly it’s not going to be your usual kind of show on this rainy Sunday night in Ardmore.
Some people may be satisfied with mere wizardry on their instrument, but not Kaki King. She’s spent the last decade looking for forward-thinking things to do with a guitar without just relying on flashy virtuosity (which is still mighty impressive, but that’s not the point). It’s taken her around the world for the past dozen years, but having become “a daughter-in-law of Pennsylvania” as she put it, she was particularly happy to start this leg of her current tour in an area where she now has some ties.
Philadelphia’s Mary Lattimore began the night by coaxing all kinds of tones out of a seven-foot harp. She started quietly in much the same way, knocking on the wood and scraping fingers along the strings, then looping the sounds before adding more layers. She had the room still enough that even the bartenders were gingerly trying to pour drinks as quietly as possible. It built into an enchanting half-hour of swooping melodies and pleasant tones, all run through a small processor on her lap that she played as fluidly as the harp itself. The set was one continuous string of moods, some a bit atonal or dark, but eventually ending up somewhere lush and peaceful.
King’s venture for the last couple years has been a multimedia show called The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body. At one point she described it as being “about the guitar and written by the guitar,” which already tells you something. Like so many artists, she considers herself to be channeling something rather than creating it. The guitar in question is made of a sturdy white plastic that makes the surface into a canvas for light and video projections. Combined with visuals by an outfit called Glowing Pictures, it makes for a sensory experience that’s simply dazzling.
Between the stage backdrop and the guitar itself, there was a constant series of moving images to complement the songs: dripping paint, outer-space vistas, animated laser lines, actual video footage (such as shots of New York City to accompany “Carmine St,” where she lived when she wrote it), or just crazy whirls of dancing colors and shapes. Never content just to pluck and strum, she made occasional use of backing tracks, used the guitar as percussion instrument and put the sounds through all manner of processing to make a vast layered soundscape. The visuals were done in real time from a fellow at stage right with a laptop, making it an exploration in the moment more than a routine with every little piece planned out.
I don’t want to make the actual music seem like an afterthought either. Her songs stand on their own without needing lyrics or videos, as demonstrated throughout her catalogue up to the latest The Neck… studio release. It’s a vivid melting pot in audio form alone, ranging from simple lovely instrumental melodies to psychedelic jazzy explorations or electrified rock. At the same time, the live show adds a whole extra dimension not to be missed if the chance comes. By the time King wound up with her longtime staple “Playing with Pink Noise” at the very end of the evening, that title couldn’t help taking on a whole new meaning.