Banjo player/multi-instrumentalist Kaia Kater ranks in the vanguard of roots musicians inspired by classic Americana but not constrainted by it. Her debut album, Sorrow Bound encompassed oldtime Appalachian sounds, bluegrass and newgrass. Her latest album, Nine Pin – streaming at her music page – is considerably starker, darker and more blues-based. You’ve got a couple of chances to check her out live this week (see below: she’s on a couple of cool multiple-act bills). Give the album a spin and chances are you will be drawn in by her purist, rustic sensibility as much as by her commitment to age-old populist themes that have become especially relevant in these horribly surreal, pre-inauguration times.
The opening track, Saint Elizabeth – an Elizabeth Cotten shout-out, maybe? sets the stage. It’s mostly just Kater’s stark vocals and banjo over minimal washes of bass until Caleb Hamilton’s trumpet kicks in at the end. “Can’t you hear me calling to you, with black and broken teeth?” her grim narrator implores.
Likewise, Little Pink is a morosely swaying field-holler style vamp, Hamilton’s spare trumpet contrasting with ringing electric guitar that adds an unexpected Malian desert rock duskiness. Paradise Fell brings an antique Appalachian-style tune into the 21st century, lowlit with resonant steel guitar: “Paradise fell, and the tenements grew,” Kater muses.
Rising Down hypnotically blends spiky banjo and pizzicato fiddle textures, fluttery trumpet on the top end balanced by low washes of steel: “I will stand with my people as one,” Kater intones matter-of-factly. Harlem’s Little Blackbird is a moody jump-rope rhyme of sorts, while the album’s title track broodingly contemplates the “evils of the setting sun,” in a down-and-out milieu. After all this dirgelike ambience, the aptly titled, spare instrumental Fun Times At Our House makes a sharp contrast.
The ominously spare piano waltz Viper’s Nest edges into minimalist art-rock, followed by White, a more sprightly, trickily syncopated, oldtimey banjo tune with gospel-flavored harmonies. Kater takes the music into warmly nocturnal territory with Harvest and the Plow and then after the last of a handful of improvisational miniatures that pepper the album, she winds it up with the jaunty Hangman’s Reel: this executioner is obviously having fun, maybe sarcastically.
Kater’s on the bill this Jan 5 at the Jalopy at a little after 8 on a great bill assembled by first-class Alaskan fiddler Ken Waldman along with several other artists: Nic Gareiss and Maeve Gilchrist doing their folk dance and harp act; Wild Hog with Thomas Bailey, Aaron Jonah Lewis and Max Johnson; Brian Vollmer & Claire Byrne playing oldtimey guitar-and-fiddle music; the fiddle-fueled trio of Chris Miller, Audrey Knuth and Mark Kilianski; and individualistic string band Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards. Cover is $15. You can also catch Kater at the small room at the Rockwood on Jan 8 at about 8:30 PM followed by thoughtful newschool Americana songstress Kristin Andreassen and charming antique Appalachian folk duo Anna & Elizabeth.