By Carson King | Staff Writer

Kaki King intertwines modern technology with her music to provide audience members with an unforgettable performance. (Courtesy of TED)

On the night of Oct. 20, the marquee outside of the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley was arranged to read “Tonight – Kaki King,” marking the place as a traditional concert venue. However, when I stepped inside, the flyers for guitar, ukulele, banjo, and other you-name-it-players clearly communicated that this was a musician’s space. The nonprofit, which sponsors nightly shows and community programs, marks itself as “the home of traditional music.”

While Kaki King, a guitarist who has been called “a genre unto herself” by Rolling Stone, has been celebrated by classical guitar players for her incredible technique, her performance that night was far from a traditional acoustic set. As a part of her innovative “The Neck is a Bridge to the Body” tour, this show was a combination of instrumental guitar gig and electric light show.

The program, touring since 2015, uses projection mapping to place images directly onto a custom white guitar as it is being played. The graphics that appear both on the guitar and on the larger screen behind it are, at times, controlled by King through technology that designates certain visuals to specific pitches. Other elements of the video effects are manipulated by a visual designer. The story of the show is loosely framed as a creation myth with the guitar as “an ontological tabula rasa.”

Despite having already established a career more than fifteen years ago, King had never before incorporated visual art into her music. She found this new inspiration just a few years ago, after undergoing eye surgery that significantly restored her vision. She had previously been legally blind. In a 2016 interview with UPROXX, King said,“[the surgery] changed a lot of things about how I interacted with the world. It was reinvigorating my relationship to the guitar.”

King frequently talks about her experience growing up as a Queer girl in the south and how music was the only medium through which she found solace and friendship during those tough years of her life. One of the highlights of this program was an interlude in an otherwise intense concert that comedically shares this part of King’s story. Here, the audience was directly addressed by the guitar as King played expressive phrases that served as narration to the story. The abstract graphics that made up most of the show was interrupted by the text of what the guitar was “saying.” The accompanying video, titled “Roaming Guitar,” featured only guitars as characters but told a poignant story of an outcast who was looking for the right people—I mean guitars—to influence her life and music.

In the same interview, King shared, “If you look at what was said about me in the media, it was all about technique… it was never about, ‘God, when I listen to her music it makes me feel this way,’ which is what I was trying to accomplish.” 

That night in Berkeley, she left the audience in awe with a show that was not only visually and sonically breathtaking, but emotionally impactful as well. The swelling sound as she played the strings stirred feelings of melancholy and motivation in me while instilling moments of introspection and inspiration.

After the show, I had the chance to meet King at the merch table. As long-time fan, it felt like I was in a dream. With her slick platinum undercut matching her all white outfit, she seemed ethereal. I was dumbfounded and immediately forgot all of the jokes I could have made about us sharing a last name. As I fumbled to unwrap the CD for her to sign, the only thing I managed to mutter was, “Thanks, you are so important to me.” Not only was this concert an amazing performance, but it is a night that I will never forget.

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