King Wilkie: Bow when you say that

Published October 28, 2004, in issue 0343 of the Hook

King Wilkie and Duende
at Starr Hill
Friday, October 22


Oh King Wilkie, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways (postmodern list style):

*Your rapid 1-2 punch of up-tempo rabble-rouser­ up-tempo rabble-rouser ­ mournful ballad ­ repeat, repeat, repeat...

*Your harmonized singing voices, with the affected nasal accents.

*Your brilliantly choreographed stage moves, shuffling your six-person lineup so that everyone has a chance to shine at the central mic.

*Your devotion to the older times, without a Lynyrd Skynyrd riff coming out of any of you during your entire performance

*Your individual virtuosity on your instruments, which each member has a chance to show off during the aforementioned shining.

Last Friday night at Starr Hill saw another performance by the boys in King Wilkie, at this point in our history my pick as the best bluegrass band in town– and I'm not the only one who thinks so. The crowd, though comfortable during the opening act, swelled to a size I've only seen at Starr Hill a few times during my tenure as patron of the establishment.

The group won the IBMA Emerging Artists of the Year for 2004, and is playing the Grand Ol' Opry in a few weeks– now that's some upward trajectory.

After a battle of wills between opening act Duende and Jay Farrar (who was piped in on the club's PA system) as they attempted their sound check, the duo retook the stage and performed what I would call A+ opening-act material. Composed of one member of each of the sexes, the guitared (and occasionally mandolined) pair switched off their lead vocal work, while the second in command on each song provided some exquisite background harmonies.

Highlights of the set included guitarist Alex Radus' "Old Fashioned House," a Paul-Simon-meets-bluegrass response to his relatives on the musical life choices he's made, and his on-stage counterpart Maria Woodward's "Traveling On," about meeting and leaving people on the road.

Soon enough, the main act took the stage, all six of them carrying their instruments with pride as the crowd hooted in appreciation. Beginning with the traditional "Darling Nelly Across the Sea," the group rocked it, old-old school, right off the bat. But it was on the second number that things really got moving.

Guitarist Ted Pitney's composition "All Night Blues" went from Johnny McDonald and Reid Burgess close harmonies on the verse to– boom!– a violin solo, then– kapow!– a mandolin solo, then– brrring!– another verse, then acoustic guitar/banjo/and violin again in the spotlight.

As the song progressed, the five mobile members (the standup bass was a bit more stationary) shimmied out of each other's way in a ballet of stage moves aimed at maximizing mic time.

The traditional "In the Pines," with its mournful violin intro and close harmonies and Pitney's "Broke Down and Lonesome" were both crowd pleasers– or should I say crowd appeasers, as the frenzied masses appeared ready to rip the band's clothes off, Beatles style, as the set wore on.

These guys are beyond great, and you should check them out before they escape the gravity pull of our town and make their way to the outside world for good.

King Wilkie