Kaki King plays the drums. Oh, I know, on the inside sleeve of her latest CD, Legs to Make Us Longer
, she quietly lists her instrument as "guitar." And stumbling unawares into the preamble of one of her live shows, you might reasonably assume (before you hear anything) that you're about to get an evening of sensitive folk profundity. After all, that does look
like an acoustic guitar in her lap. But these are carefully constructed illusions. Once you close your eyes and open your ears, you realize that King could be playing the entire percussion section in her very own symphony orchestra.
Which makes a certain sense: King was a drummer in her high school band, and while in college aspired to provide the backbeat for various groups in the New York indie rock scene. At some point she made the transition from one instrument to the other, but clearly never lost the percussive sensibility.
There have been others who have specialized in the kind of guitar-drumming that King does particularly well, of course. Stanley Jordan is often credited with starting the style, which is sometimes called "tapping"a term that means the fretboard (and sometimes the body of the guitar) is struck (or "hammered") with the tips of the fingers. And a whole passel of hard rock icons screwed up their faces god-knows-how-many times in the eighties trying to get the hyper-masculine stadium version of this just right. King herself cites a number of more obscure (and I would say more interesting) influences: Preston Reed, Michael Hedges, Leo Kottke, Nick Drake, and Elliot Smith, among others.
Let's get the technical considerations out of the way. First, one has to admire the fact that King's tapping is done on an acoustic guitar (anyone who has ever picked up one of those knows how painful that must be). Also, she's a remarkably sensitive, dynamic player. (For all his technical skill, Eddie Van Halenone of the best known of the passel mentioned abovehas always been, in my opinion anyway, musically monotonous. A lot of notes, sure, but they're all pretty loud, aren't they?) Further, King's repertoire of skills is broad: in addition to the styles mentioned above, she can also play lap slide ("Can the Gwot Save Us?"), fingerpick ("Doing the Wrong Thing"), and even sing ("My Insect Life").
But what is most unique and notable about King may have nothing to do with all of this. Aside from the obvious (the fact that she is a woman playing an instrument that tends to be dominated by infamously obsessive men), it's worth noting that she doesn't succumb to the one thing that often stymies other virtuosos: she can actually write a good tune (everything on this record is a King original). Her compositional style is an interesting hybrid: partly bursting with punk energy, and partly reflective of the dark moodiness that must have characterized her New York City subway performances in the days after September 11. And, indeed, that image may be the ideal summation of her artistry; it suggests a musician perfectly suited to her time.