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Feeling Red 

Kaki King is poised for major success (just don't tell her that)

Fame arrived a little bit early. It strolled up the walkway to the porch and stood at the doorstep. It straightened its collar, took a deep breath, knocked on the door and waited. And waited. And waited some more. No one answered.

To 26-year-old folk/experimental/indie guitar phenom Kaki King, fame looks no different than a vacuum salesman or a Jehovah's Witness. Oh, she sees it standing there in anticipation all right, but she just doesn't feel like opening the door and listening to what it has to say. She's not buying. Not today anyway. On the phone from New York, King recoils when asked about the writer who tagged her as the "Jimi Hendrix of acoustic guitar."

"I don't know where people get this stuff," she says incredulously. "It was someone who has obviously never listened to Hendrix. It's all just this hyperbolic ..." and the thought ends abruptly as another one forcibly pushes its way over her lips. King continues to elaborate in fits and starts and half-developed ruminations in an attempt to explain away the endless stream of sensationalism surrounding her young career. One would have assumed she'd be used to this kind of thing by now.

Through four years and three albums, critics, fairly or unfairly, have drawn comparisons between King and a trio of guitarists: Preston Reed, Michael Hedges and Alex de Grassi. They have unabashedly built up Kaki King into some iconoclastic figure, something that, although flattering, truly baffles her. She speaks about it with the obstinacy of someone wanting only to be a musician, not an icon, someone wanting to be seen through binoculars, not through a microscope, and someone not quite ready to have been seated at the unexpectedly large table reserved for Chosen Ones. "I'm just following in the footsteps of a well-traveled path," she insists.

Perhaps the Georgia native's unwillingness to accept lavish praise is just part and parcel of the youthful rebelliousness she maintains, a way to avoid being what others want her to be. Perhaps King feels that her five-foot tall frame has little room left on its delicate shoulders for such heavy expectations -- especially with an Ovation Adamas guitar slung across one of them. Or, perhaps it's the fact that, for someone bursting with ideas and untethered creative energy, it's painful to read and to hear the same dull, regurgitated words, over and over again, spewed forth from the pens and the mouths of writers and critics, all of whom seem to feel the need to distill her abilities down to one fantastic, all-encompassing catchphrase.

Still, in every aggrandized proclamation there exists some semblance of truth. The truth is that Kaki King is an astounding talent. She possesses technical savvy that belies her years. The music she creates lingers somewhere in the silent space between old and new, between stunning pastoral beauty and unnerving metropolitan clatter, between Walden Pond and The Jungle. Just don't tell King that. To her, there is no need to qualify it or to quantify it.

King, despite her youth, is wise enough to know that there is a stigma to being labeled. It's a corrosive force that creates a subtext of presupposed expectations for an artist. It's something with which she is familiar and of which she grew very tired in the wake of her first two albums: Everybody Loves You and Legs To Make Us Longer. Those releases introduced her unorthodox, percussive style of guitar -- a frenetic, detuned array of string-plucking and fret-thwacking -- to the world and, for many, introduced their chins to the floor in awestruck amazement. Her signature sound reflected big city life as viewed from a subway platform, a place where she cut her teeth, and a place where she realized a musical road ahead strewn with tantalizing possibilities. All the while, fame lurked in the shadows and kept a vigilant watch.

Success, like an alcohol-induced buzz, is intoxicating, warps perspectives and is temporary if not properly sustained. King admits her low tolerance for stagnation had diminished her creative outlook. As a musician, she felt constricted by the limits of what she could do as a solo acoustic guitarist, a situation very disheartening for someone who, up until that point, had drifted effortlessly and without limitation through the creative slipstream. For someone who viewed artistic growth as a perpetual undertaking, the answer lay in the pursuit of an entirely new direction for her music. That new direction would most certainly quell the growing boredom of increasingly formulaic outcomes surrounding her, both musically and critically.

King's new CD ...Until We Felt Red (Velour Records), released Aug. 8, defines that new direction. Reflecting her growth as an artist, the disc finds King unveiling a multi-instrumental approach to her songs. In addition to surrounding herself with a band, she has added lap steel guitar, bass guitar and a haunting, ethereal vocal style to her repertoire, something King avoided in the past because, she muses, "I never felt I had much to say before as a songwriter."

In other ways, the album is a calculated countermeasure unleashed to stave off a stigmatized existence, an attempt to retain order in a world that she has meticulously cultivated. The critics, with their high-caliber diction, will eventually track her down and she will inevitably find herself once again in the crosshairs of hyperbole. But in her ability to quickly morph into something altogether different and beautiful, King holds the key to outdistancing them and the decaying footprints of those artists that came before her.

Kaki King is viewed as an important talent, possibly one of the most important to arrive on the scene in the last decade. But she isn't trying to hear that; she refuses to be compartmentalized or pinned down. Many go in search of fame; fame sought King out and desperately wishes to speak with her. Meanwhile, the knocks on the door are much louder these days than they were just a few short years ago. The sell has become harder and the pitch more sophisticated, but Kaki King will answer only when she feels like it. Today is not that day. Instead, she just ignores the clamor outside and goes about her business. And fame waits.

Kaki King will be performing with Christine Baze on the Yellow Umbrella Tour at the Neighborhood Theatre; Sept. 12; 8pm; $10 adv., $12 DOS. The tour, in its fourth year, helps raise awareness of cervical cancer. For info call: 704-358-9298 or visit www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.

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