- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

This is a special week for acoustic fans in Greater Washington, as two guitar sensations bring their special sounds to close-in Virginia.

“I start with this basic bottom, the grounding stuff — it’s just like the groove or the bass notes,” says the young and innovative fingerpicking star Kaki King, who arrives with her surprising and exciting style at Jammin’ Java in Vienna tonight.

“The way songs typically get built for me — and it takes a long period of time — I’ll be playing something really simple and then the more I elaborate on it and embellish it, that’s when the harmony starts to come out and that’s when all the dynamics start to happen.”

What happens are rhythmic, rolling solo guitar pieces that recall, but don’t mimic, the work of guitar greats like Leo Kotke, Michael Hedges, and Preston Reed.

Some of Miss King’s early notice came from her use of Mr. Reed’s two-handed, fret board-tapping style. Today, her work still includes pronounced beats and percussive sounds, but it has expanded to incorporate a wide range of light and delicate styles as well.

It’s no joke to say that Miss King, now 25, started at the bottom — let’s say even underground.

“I don’t think anybody in their right mind would say, ‘Let’s go play instrumental guitar in the subway and then get a record deal’” Miss King says with a laugh.

But that’s the way it happened. After graduating from New York University in three years with a bachelor of arts degree, she told her parents that she wanted to spend a year in New York City being self-sufficient before going to grad school.

“I wanted to devote a year to music,” she says. “That was conscious. It wasn’t like I wanted to be signed to Sony. That was my priority for that year, just playing guitar.”

Finding work playing music is extremely competitive. So she began playing her guitar for tips on New York City subway platforms. For six months on the L and F line platforms in Greenwich Village, she developed her technique and began to find her personal sound.

Soon people started asking if she had a CD. In the winter of 2001 and 2002, she recorded one in a friend’s studio. The simple CD found its way to people at the venerable jazz club The Knitting Factory, who offered her a one-night-a-week gig for a month in their small side cafe.

From there, the head of independent label Velour Records offered to release her album and manage her career. Her CD started getting favorable reviews from critics and she started getting regular paying gigs.

Last year, Sony/Epic Records offered her a multi-album deal. Since then, she has traveled all over the country and opened for everyone from David Byrne to Robert Randolph.

Her first Sony album, “Legs to Make Us Longer,” will be released in October. It’s already receiving good reviews and her audience is expanding.

“I’m young and I like young people,” Miss King says. “I like capturing the person who’s young and who’s never heard of these older guitar players a lot of my older fans have. They’ll just be, ‘Whoa, that’s cool, I like that.’ It’s fun to turn people’s heads enough to where they’re like, ‘Wow.’”

• • •

Guy Davis is a bluesman. When he takes the stage Sunday at the Herndon Folk Festival, he won’t be alone. The ghosts of blues greats like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Furry Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Terry are likely to be waiting nearby for their turn at the microphone.

When the W.C. Handy award-winning blues guitarist sings, he often seems to be channeling some blues giant from the past. For example, when he sings the Charles Brown classic “Drifting Blues” on his latest album, “Chocolate to the Bone,” he dedicates it to the memory of Junior Wells, one of the great Chicago blues harmonica players, a headliner for almost 40 years, who died in 1998 at the age of 64.

One can almost hear Mr. Wells growling when Mr. Davis sings, “If my baby would only take me back again.” And Mr. Davis adds a bit of the Wells trademark quaver to his harmonica solo.

This is not to say that Mr. Davis, 52, is an impressionist or mimic of the blues. In the notes for his new album, he often says a particular song is “his love song” to John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf or some other blues legend.

“I seek to make the music come alive,” Mr. Davis says. “I’d like for folks to hear it with that same energy that it might have been heard close to 100 years ago, like some old Blind Lemon Jefferson tune.”

Blind Lemon Jefferson, like Leadbelly one of the original folk blues legends, started performing around 1912.

Clearly a student of the history of the blues and in some part a teacher of the same, Mr. Davis still always includes much of his own soul in the classics he performs.

“But it’s not limited to that,” Mr. Davis continues. “‘Alive’ means that it reaches out and touches you now. It doesn’t mean that you have to go back in time to listen to it.”

His originals also rub elbows with the legends, but sometimes with very original twists. In “Set a Place for Me,” also from “Chocolate to the Bone,” he takes the point of view of the man who killed his lover in the Blind Willie McTell classic, “Delia.” He creates a moving song that makes one can feel the struggle and passion of a man who loves too much.

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