It was a Sunday, late afternoon when she swaggered in, looking like a cross between a cute cowgirl and a fierce blues diva. Her stage? A pool cabana in the shadow of a sprawling Haiku mansion, adjacent to a bar serving only mojitos. Her band? Whoever wanted to pound on one of the assorted instruments that were strewn about. Her sound? Well, to call it innovative would be selling it short. There’s an intangible, otherworldly element to what Karen B does.
Augmenting the bass and guitar she carries is an arsenal of effects pedals, which she uses in a manner both generous and calculating. It’s a collection that will at once inspire jealousy and make a believer out of even the most misogynistic of boy musicians.
Her Excaliber is her sampler, which she employs to loop her catchy vocal and instrumental riffs (much of it on-the-spot). The result is an organic and fearless package, one that betrays an instinctual understanding of music. Her guitar riffs and chord progressions demonstrate an intimate musical knowledge. They scurry, plod and meander through varying degrees of complexity, but never seem out of place. The sampler lets her pluck the best of these out of the air and strategically drop them in where she sees fit. This, of course, allows her to do multiple things at once, which makes for a rich and textured product.
Only some of what she plays is written ahead of time, which means that no song is performed the same way twice—an impressive feat, given that most musicians’ sets rely heavily on rehearsed material.
To those not musically savvy enough to be totally floored by the way she assembles songs, the most appealing thing may be her vocal style. Rhythm and blues are a clear and heavy influence. Her pipes are extremely easy on the ears with their velvety soul inclinatio; she’s a dyed-in-the-wool alto and doesn’t try to stab at soprano—but she’ll hit a high note if she needs to. She also adds an element of tin can trippiness with the help of distortion and other effects pedals.
The melodies she adopts are heavily R&B-inspired, but contain globe-spanning flourishes. This eclecticism spills over into her lyrics, which possess a broad range of vivid imagery. A favorite refrain of mine from her poolside performance was the repetition of the words “nobody knows my name.”
This sense of bold anonymity spills over into B’s stage presence, or at least it does when she sings from behind the gigantic pair of gangsta broad sunglasses she sported. It’s no surprise that B is also a visual artist—a painter, to be exact. Like her music, her paintings have an impressionistic bent. Both contain a tangible form with vivid imagery and lots of room for the unexpected.
If you missed her Sunday performance, you’re not out of luck. She plays with some consistency at venues across the Valley Isle, including Ambrosia and South Shore Tiki Lounge.
Those seeking the archetypal acoustic lady songstress who cries into her beer as she sings about boyfriends might want to stay home. But if you’re looking for something surreal yet grounded, something that’s unique and creative without being jarring, check out this complex and hidden gem. MTW