Keith Otten’s Big Acoustic Anthems Defy the Odds in Williamsburg

by delarue

Can you imagine Nick Drake playing a weekend gig at a pub? Pressured by his record label, he did more than one. And he hated every minute of them: no wonder he retired from live performance after that. Bar gigs are tough under any circumstances, but it’s a whole lot easier to compete with the drunks if you can blast back at them through a big guitar amp. Keith Otten, on the other hand, does it the hard way, the old-fashioned way, with just vocals and acoustic guitar. And he does it every week, and he manages to get random people to listen.

Which might sound more impressive than it actually is. Otten’s one of the great unsung heroes of lead guitar. He first made an impact here in New York with Feed, his legendary/obscure project with Tim Butler of the Psychedelic Furs. Over the last few years, he’s provided the scorch and burn in long-running, artsy Nashville gothic band Ninth House. Before that he led the twin guitar-fueled Gotham 4, a vehicle for his towering, anthemic, Britrock-inspired songwriting. Since early this winter, he’s been playing Tuesday nights starting at around 7 PM at Craic Bar, downstairs in the new building at 488 Driggs Ave. between 9th and 10th St. in Williamsburg, and damned if he doesn’t draw people in.

And he mixes it up. While his choice of covers reveals a lot about where his own songs come from, he throws some surprises in. Much as Otten can go way out on a limb with machinegunning volleys of notes when he’s playing electric, he doesn’t waste them. So a couple of weeks ago right after the big snowstorm, it was interesting to hear him do not only one but two acoustic Grateful Dead covers (Morning Dew and Samson & Delilah), the second wrapped around a tight take of Dylan’s It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, just as Jerry might have done it in the late 80s. Except that Otten sang those songs infinitely better than either of the guys who did them the first time around.

And he also did the Yardbirds’ Mister You’re a Better Man Than I, and paired Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust with Suffragette City, and managed to mix those numbers’ big riffs into his chords without getting all skeletal, like acoustic versions of big rock songs can become in the hands of less experienced players. But it was the originals that were the most fun to hear. Like the covers, Otten’s rearranged them so that they pretty much maintain the epic quality of the original electric versions. From the circling chords of Long Enough, from Otten’s first solo album back in the 90s, through the sardonically catchy Reunion (a snide tale about blowing off a bunch of aging blowhards at a school reunion) and then the unexpectedly upbeat Special, both tracks from his latest album Trickle, he kept the crew huddled over the pool table pretty attentive. Sure, there was a yuppie in the corner hell-bent on letting the entire bar know that he had designs on the girl he’d coaxed into meeting him there, but there’s always a guy like that when you least want him around.

In two long sets, Otten’s songs ran the gamut from the subtly minimalistic, post-U2 Already Knows, to the pensive Only Time and the majestic, wryly regretful Friend’s Girlfriend. He wound up the second set with the most epic song of the night, the gorgeous, flamenco-inflected 3001, equal parts ornate acoustic Led Zep and 90s spacerock, but in a stripped-down context that revealed how poignantly gorgeous the song is even without the searingly layered multitracks on the album version. If you’re in the neighborhood and on the way home from work, this guy’s weekly show is a great way to lift your spirits: his next one is March 10.