Usually writing a review of a gig is pretty easy. Most bands are reasonably straightforward to describe and concerts too. I’ve just got back from an evening with Ken Stringfellow and I’m completely confused as to what to write.
Ken Stringfellow is hugely, stunningly talented. He’s very weird. He’s extremely funny. He’s one of the most naked performers I’ve met. He’s a very warm and loving human being. He seems nervous but he stands two feet from a member of the audience and sings the most open and aching song you can imagine looking straight into their face, without blinking. While turned away from the audience and tuning his guitar he mutters as if to himself about being an emotionally fragile person who’s going through a nervous breakdown – and has been, he says, for some time now. And then says, It’s great – you should try it. And giggles.
But what songs. What an amazing voice to sing them with.
Wait. Let me backtrack a little. Ken came up out of the ether last week and I was asked to go and check out the concert on Sunday night in Bi Nuu. I admit I hadn’t heard of him and it was only after researching a bit online that I came to realise what a huge oversight that was.
Ken Stringfellow has done a massive amount. He is referred to as always working slightly under the radar, but being a key player in the underground US music scene in the last two decades. He has had his own bands, played solo and worked as a sideman. Although it’s by no means the most impressive thing he’s done, the most famous thing he’s been involved in is playing as a live touring as well as recording musician with R.E.M. He came up with a lot of ideas for a couple of their early zeroes albums, especially on Reveal, where he contributed both guitar and keyboard ideas galore. This came about because he had played with Peter Buck in a couple of bands on the Seattle scene, where he had lived and made his mark. He was a member of the highly influential band The Posies, as well as playing with a host of other indie bands of the time. He’s shared a stage with Neil Young, played to 250,000 people at Rock In Rio – and then there he was on Sunday night, playing to maybe fifteen people in Bi Nuu. How this came about I don’t know, but I was really very blessed to have been there.
A lot of musicians who have played with such major bands and to such huge audiences might have found the fact of playing to a handful of people in a late night bar in Berlin a crap thing. If Ken felt this, he hid it extremely well. Although Bi Nuu isn’t large, it’s still a tribute to his confidence that he did what few musicians would have done – he brought his keyboard down from the small stage, turned down his electric guitar, and kept them both at a level that enabled him to sing without a microphone. Which is a difficult thing to do – to play plugged in but to sing acoustically. It’s also very effective – how do you take the fact that you have a tiny crowd and turn it into an advantage? By making it wonderfully intimate.
Ken came across as – and admitted to being – a very shy person. But he still captivated everyone there. Wonderful songs, great voice, great presence, very funny, hugely entertaining. I felt honoured to be there.
Ken Stringfellow’s new album Danzig in the Moonlight is out now, all over the place
Review by Noel Maurice