Concert Review – Amethyst Kiah
Last week, August 2, 2021 to be precise, I had the opportunity to see Amethyst Kiah in concert at the Chautauqua Institute. Once of the great things about Chautauqua, is the opportunity to see bands one might not think to go see otherwise. Due to COVID, the crowd was much smaller than it should have been but that added to the intimacy of the show. For those unfamiliar with Kiah, she is predominantly a solo artist whose music falls under the broad umbrella of roots music. She was a member of the roots super group Our Native Daughters with Rhianna Glidden and Allison Russell. As an aside, I saw Russel toward the end of the week opening for Margo Price. Such is the magic of Chautauqua.
What was obvious from the outset was that the best way to appreciate Kiah’s music is live. She is a dynamic performer, excellent guitar player, and emotive singer. When she first entered the stage, she looked unassuming, fumbling with her guitar. My immediate thought was that she looked kind of amateur. But then she started playing her first song, a gospel infused Delta blues song that would have made Howling Wolf proud. Her voice was more like that of a folk singer, similar to Tracy Chapman, but her guitar playing was so like Robert Cray that I kept looking to see of he would suddenly emerge from offstage.
Over the course of a little bit over an hour she switched from blues to folk to gospel to country and to rock. And boy, can she really rock and she has the band for it. The drummer is a heavy hitter with a big sound and the bass player didn’t simply keep the rhythm. She played bass more like Yes’ Chris Squire than your typical bass player. They produced a massive sound for a trio and yet, could be delicate.
One of the highlights was “Trouble So Hard”. A 1937 version of this song by singer Vera Hall was the primary sample in Moby’s “Natural Blues” from his hit 1999 album Play. In Amethyst Kiah’s hands, this song becomes a sorrowful blues song, full of pain and longing. You could feel it in your bones and in your heart. Before the concert could become ponderous, however, Kiah shifted to a country song. A country song of all things! And a love ballad at that. Just when the audience was feeling so low, she lifted everyone up. Kiah claims to write songs to process her emotions. Subsequently, many of her songs are sad and painful. They never bring you too low, though. Kiah never risks becoming unbearable.
Part of made Kiah so great a performer was the constant surprises. Late in the show, she delighted her listeners with an acoustic, folk version of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” from 1995’s The Bends. Unlike the original, her version didn’t sound weary and resigned. Instead, there was more hope and defiance. It was stunning and brilliant.
Probably the only complaint I heard about the concert, which came from someone I was with, was that she talks too much. She does have a tendency to tell stories about the songs she plays, talking about the writing process or history of the song. I found it charming, but I can see how others might be annoyed by it.
Amethyst Kiah is one of the most versatile performers I’ve ever seen. The sheer range of styles she has mastered is amazing. At no point did she seem out of her elements no matter what she was playing. Moving between rock, country, blues, gospel, and folk seemed effortless. In this regard, she is like Susan Tedeschi of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, but with more range. It’s unfortunate that she isn’t better known in mainstream music circles. She really should be more famous than she is. In the meantime, I’m glad to have seen her perform and hope everyone of you will get that opportunity in the future.
August 2, 2021
The Amphitheater at the Chautauqua Institute