Purist Americana Banjo Player and Songwriter Kaia Kater Hits New York for a Couple of Shows

by delarue

Kaia Kater is sort of a Great White North counterpart to Sarah Jarosz. Both are relatively young (early 20s) and esteemed in Americana circles. Kater’s axe is the banjo; like multi-instrumentalist Jarosz (who has since fallen in with the dadrock crowd), her repertoire draws heavily on high lonesome Appalachian traditoinal sounds. More impressively, Kater is also a talented, tuneful songwriter whose originals stand out in the crowded newgrass/string band world for their vivid, often brooding rusticity. Her debut album, Sorrow Bound, is streaming at her webpage. She’s playing the Jalopy tonight, Oct 5 sometime after 9 as part of Feral Foster‘s weekly Roots & Ruckus multi-act extravaganza; haunting flamenco/Sicilian song reinterpreter Julia Patinella and blues duo Miss Jubilee & Ethan Leinwand are also on the bill. Then tomorrow, Oct 6 Kater is at the small room at the Rockwood at 10 PM.

Kater opens the album by reinterpreting the old standard When Sorrows Encompass Me Round as an ominously allusive southern gothic narrative, her spare, syncopated banjo encompasssed by low cumulo-nimbus piano ambience and the occasional steel guitar whine or roar. Kater’s gentle, honeyed voice rises a little in the jaunty, moonshine-fueled seduction tale Southern Girl, punctuated by dancing fiddle. By contrast, the field holler Sun to Sun evokes the most brooding, terminally depressed chain gang song you could imagine.

Kater switches to French for the spare but lively Acadian dance tune En Filant Ma Quenouille. Then she multitracks her voice for the understatedly funny, surreal, a-cappella Moonshiner. The instrumental Rose on the Mountain gives Kater the chance to flex her chops in tandem with the fiddle, eerie steel lingering underneath. A little later, the trio – Kater again joined by fiddle and steel – swing though another instrumental, the considerably more animated Valley Forge.

The one-chord, minor-key cautionary tales Oh Darlin’ and West Virginia Boys are dead ringers for mid-1800s Bible Belt folk tunes.The album’s longest instrumental, Salt River, is also its most hypotic and modern-sounding. Kater winds up with the understatedly eerie Come and Rest and its enticing Blair Witch ambience.

That Kater happens to be Canadian-born, of Afro-Caribbean descent, is really beside the point. Does anybody make a big deal of the fact that Hank Williams was white and sang a lot of blues? If anything, Kater’s writing reminds just how much cultural cross-pollination there was back when songs first soared over mountain valleys that hadn’t yet been clearcut, stripmined or dotted with cellphone towers disguised as pines.