What happens when you take a Montreal-born banjo player of Grenada-Canadian heritage who grew up in a “Folkie” family, was educated in Appalachia, and plunk her down in Arden’s Gild Hall on a Friday night? Magic—of the spellbinding variety. Kater celebrated the release of her third album, Grenades, earlier in the week, and she came, ready to tell a story. She opened the concert with two songs Little Pink and St. Elizabeth, off of her sophomore effort, Nine Pin. The fast banjo and restrained vocals drew the audience into lyrics that explored the dark side of infatuation. Thus introduced, she was ready to showcase her new work. For Grenades, Kater mined her father Deno Hurst’s history as a refugee of war-torn Grenada. In introducing songs La Misére, Grenades, and Poets Be Burned off of the new record, Kater played interludes, snippets of interviews with her father that described the ferocity of Reagan-era U.S. war machine upon the small island nation and her father’s subsequent emigration to Canada. The subject matter alone lent a gravity to her songs that belied the fact that Kater is only twenty-five years old.
She is an old soul musically, as well. I detected influences of Nina Simone and Woodie Guthrie. But her use of syncopation in the song Meridian Ground and the imagery and poetic meter of Grenades also brought to mind the more contemporary Jill Scott. This was Kater’s first occasion performing at the Arden Gild Hall and my first time hearing her live. Ron Ozer, top organizer/volunteer for the Arden Concert Gild, says that this album required Kater to employ a more electric, percussive sound—achieved with musicians Andrew Ryan on bass, and Mike Robison on guitar. Previously, she toured as a duo. I’ll take his word for it. What I do know is the all-wood venue of the Arden Gild Hall has great warming acoustics, particularly for an instrument like the banjo. Think Ryman Auditorium.
Kater rounded out the performances from her new album with a cover of Gillian Welch’s Everything is Free, a modern treatise on the effect of electronic steaming on musicians, and Ti Chagrin, a French language song written by Kater’s aunt Julia Kater. As an encore, Kater debuted the live performance of her latest single release, New Colossus. As the lights went up, I felt as though I had my musical passport stamped many times over the course of the evening. If you didn’t catch her this time, Kater will perform at the Philadephia Folksong Society on December 1. It won’t be your last chance. I predict that, though she plumbed the depths of musical expression and human experience on Friday night, we have only begun to scratch the surface of what Kaia Kater will demonstrate throughout her career.
Check out Arden Concert Gild for news of upcoming concert events.
Photo of Kaia Kater IN Arden by Joe del Tufo.