Smile Politely

A god and her guitar

Considering Kaki King’s ten-year-plus career as a masterful guitarist, it’s astonishing that drums were her first instrument of choice. But they were. She played them throughout her childhood and adolescence (she played in a band in high school). It wasn’t until college that the guitar drew her interest, and she began playing it seriously.

Since college, King has progressed from busking in subway stations to performing at festivals around the world. She’s collaborated and toured with many amazing musicians and composers: The Roots, Sarah Bettens (K’s Choice), Dave Grohl, Eric Johnson, David Torn, Carter Burwell, and The Mountain Goats (Black Pear Tree EP), just to name a few (the list seems endless).

Along with Eddie Vedder and Michael Brook, she composed and performed the gorgeous soundtrack to the film Into the Wild. And she scored How I Got Lost all by her lonesome. Kaki King has performed on TED Talks, and is the first woman to be named to Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitar Gods” list (“Van Halen meets Bootsy”). She is, indeed, one of the best guitarists today – the epitome of virtuosity — no matter her gender.

Her music is sometimes rock, sometimes haunting, oftentimes playful, and always moving, interesting, and heavy on percussion. And her latest album, Glow, an instrumental work of art that she composed while on tour, is no exception. When Glow was released, King told Alarm magazine that she’d been experiencing a bit of burnout: 

I figured the best way to reignite my love for the guitar and my love for playing was to start these random solo tours. It was really just an excuse to get out on the road and force myself to be creative with one guitar at a time.

The string quartet ETHEL accompanied King on the album is the result is nothing short of exquisite.

Kaki King: “Great Round Barn”

[[mp3 great_round_burn]]

King performed at the Ellnora Guitar Festival in 2007, and she was one of the best things about that year’s festival. Until that performance, I’d never before seen technique like hers (she’s often compared to Eddie Van Halen, and cites Preston Reed as an influence). Whether she’s performing on an acoustic guitar, a lap steel, or her beloved Ovation, her slapping, fret-tapping, fingerstyle playing is electrifying to watch. What I most remember from her performance is King, sitting alone on a chair, playing one beautiful song after another, with quiet, almost shy banter in between.

And, yes, I really should be embedding her latest (gorgeous) video for “Cargo Cult,” but I’m writing this preview as a fan, not a reporter or music critic, so you’re getting my favorite video, rather than her latest. From Legs to Make Us Longer, I give you the exquisite “Playing with Pink Noise.”


Kaki King performs with Don Ross Saturday, September 7, at 4 p.m. in the beautiful Foellinger Great Hall. Tickets prices range from $10-$38.

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