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  • Andrey Psyche

Katie Kuffle has a starry homecoming night at The Sunset Tavern


Katie Kuffel on stage. // Photo by Andrey Psychè

At the Sunset Tavern on a Thursday night, November 15th, from the very first moment of setting my foot through the door, I knew it was going to be special. Every seat was taken, the bar was filled, and a line stood waiting to get into the back room well before the first act was to take the stage. In the semi-lit blanket of the stage room, musicians from all over Washington hid in plain sight, waiting for Arthur James to start the night off right.

Two men and two electric guitars entered the stage. One is James; the other must have been a talented musician that James decided to have fun with for the night. But, this mystery man wasn’t the only one. As the set progressed, every other song had new faces joining to add their little bit of essence, bringing the sound to new heights.

James alone has a voice that God himself would envy — a voice with a rich and deep tone that reverberated through the floor as much as any bass drum. James would project it far and wide with such clarity that even a screeching guitar and thumping drums could not overpower it. And then, when other guest vocalists joined in the harmony, the venue stood still in awe.  It was a huge, collaborative set that started with a feeling of intimacy and slowly expanded to a full out rock concert when the stage finally capped out at six performers: bass, drums, lead and rhythm guitar, and two backup vocalists.

The beauty of it all? As James stated that night, none of it was really planned. There just happened to be a tremendous amount of musical talent in one spot that needed to express itself, and James took advantage of the moment to serve the audience a performance that highlighted what music really means: a connection to something greater than ourselves, spontaneity and living in the moment, having confidence in one’s abilities, and, most of all, the power of friendship.

After finishing the set with a Gregory Alan Isakov cover of “Liars,” the musicians gracefully exited the stage and made way for Datenite, which is comprised of Caroline Calaway and Anna Steinle — both vocalists on synths and keyboards — Phil Hamilton on acoustic and electric drums, and Garrett Parker on bass.

A string of Christmas lights decorated with red and white flowers was strung across the stage, illuminating the band in a romantic frame inside of which lived a sound that tugged on the heartstrings like any successful date would.

Right before they were to begin, Steinle asked for the disco ball to be turned out, setting the final touch to an interstellar ride across the vast emptiness of space, speckled with a luminous dance into forever. The first song began very gently, setting the mood for a courteous exchange of pleasantries. Hamilton began with a tumultuous electric line interlinked with a few simulations of a hi-hat and claps. Slowly, the keys and synth were introduced, and off it went. The countdown had reached zero, and the engine was in full blast with Calaway and Steinle in the captain’s quarters navigating the crowd through the night.

From very danceable and energetic tracks to slow and emotional songs, every tune was addictive and executed with technical precision. Hamilton’s beats would replace your own heart’s, while the bass and synth tried to reintroduce the same air that the harmonies by Calaway and Steinle stole from you just a moment prior. When any song ended, it always felt too soon, just as a lover you’re not ready to let go of walks out the door, always trying to steal just another second — just another glance — with no success.

This female fronted synth-pop band hit all the right buttons to connect with its audience on an emotional level through melodic and lyrical storytelling and spacing its sounds in ways that would build tension and draw attention to the vocals, only to come to a moment of blissful floating in nothingness and to then reintroduce the whole melody at once as if you just hit hyperdrive on your spaceship. It was a punch in the gut every time, but one I still crave to experience again and again.

As the emotional dust settled, Katie Kuffel and her band began to take the stage. Kuffel spent most of her time behind the keys singing incredibly dynamic vocal lines. She was accompanied by Jon Robinson on a shiny, pink, five string bass — a bass that Robinson explored with a fine-tooth comb until he could make his fingers dance from top to bottom, inebriating the crowd in the process.

But, you could not miss or forget about Jordan Wiegert, who embodied the drums like the god of thunder himself. While these three are the main faces of the band, there was also a saxophonist, a couple backup vocalists — including Steinle — and the one and only Arthur James returned to the stage for the third set just as he did for Datenite on his electric guitar.

Kuffel didn’t depend on instrumentation to set up a melody, which carried an infectious energy of fearlessness with it as her voice bounced off the walls.  This band as a whole drew people into each song through a gradual build-up and kept audience attention through dynamic changes of the melody, whether through key changes or tempo modulation.

The first song, “Offering,” opened up with Kuffel standing bold and proud — just her and her voice. Then Steinle and anoother vocalist joined in for a triple harmony, which they continued to hold for another two or three verses before Wiegert introduced a simple drum line that initiated a heartbeat to the melody. Throughout a few more verses, Wiegert gradually added more and more elements to fill the gaps between the silences. It was so stripped and raw — only three voices, in a way, chanting a deeper truth that you have always heard but never listened to. A sweet eeriness filled the air.

This opening, in contrast to the band with its full sound, enticed a stale breath of air to finally escape the deepest clutches of the soul. It was a release like none other.  In between songs, Kuffel charismatically shared the stories behind the tracks or praise her sponsor, TomboyX, for the support in her over-month-long tour through some of the more influential states in the U.S. Then, just like that, back into the action.

Kuffel had a way of commanding the crowd with authentic expressions that lingered on her face, escaping like a lion’s roar, captivating us all. Even with incredibly talented musicians standing next to her, it was almost impossible to shift your gaze off Kuffel: a sultry voice that floats in the lower registers to shake you to your bones, which then skyrockets to an explosive register that leaves your empty husk begging to be filled up again.

The easiest thing to do was to close your eyes and get lost in between the lyrics, soothed by the melancholia coming from the stage, drink the poison, and float away; the hardest was to ride it out from start to finish, feeling every moment from your skin to your bones.

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© 2018 Andrey Psyche

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