CQAF: Andy McKee

American guitarist’s second visit to Belfast raises massive response

With the video for ‘Drifting’ currently sitting at more than 13,000,000 views, the video website YouTube has been instrumental in Kansan guitarist Andy McKee’s success, bringing his dynamic acoustic compositions to a worldwide audience. That’s all for naught, though, if no fans can drag themselves away from the computer screen to weigh in for the live show.

No danger of that tonight. McKee’s second appearance in NI has been shifted from the less capacious Rotterdam to the biggest venue at the festival’s disposal. Belfast’s Black Box is rammed with rabid McKee converts, filling rows of chairs and keeping the bar in steady business. While next door in the Black Box Café Germaine Greer is signing copies of Shakespeare's Wife, music fans are piling into the venue proper and anxiously awaiting a display of steel-string mastery.

McKee takes to the stage without fanfare, bouncing straight into ‘The Art of Motion’. The song builds upon a rattling pattern with harmonic taps and quick-strummed flourishes, the sound filling the room. His head grooves emphatically and the evening’s first wolf howl comes from the back rows. With eyes closed and hands dancing, McKee bops like an all-American carpenter, working the song to its finale and joyous applause.

Harp GuitarA year ago, festival organiser Sean Kelly said that the Cathedral Quarter had a knack for catching artists on the cusp of a wave. McKee is one of them; capitalising on the internet exposure to create a massive public response. After songs like ‘For My Father’, the sci-fi inspired ‘Keys to the Hovercar’ and an emotive, stylish and reverential cover of Toto’s ‘Africa’, feet are stomped, chairs are banged and whistles soar over the claps and cheers.

Is it wrong, though, to be less than engaged by consistent excellence? McKee’s technical mastery is undeniable and compositions outstanding. Perhaps it’s the late billing, or the almost academic way in which the notes sparkle. At times, audience members check phones and look at watches. One punter’s mind wanders to what he ate for dinner. ‘Popcorn with loads of cheddar cheese,’ he says to his friend. ‘Get out of here,’ comes the response. ‘Seriously. Class. A bit of mozzarella, too. You can’t fail.’ ‘What did you have for dessert?’

The songs are never less than excellent. Consistent, crafted and perfectly delivered, they contain more taps, slaps, strums and pops, more notes, chords, melody and turns than many standard band’s albums - or if compared to the Sex Pistols, entire careers. Within the assembly, though, any wayward chatter or rambunctious expression of appreciation mid-song is met with stern calls to hush from those transfixed. The appreciation is noisier after each song and the interval is filled with talk and awe.

Deviating from the standard six-string, McKee produces an instrument that looks like a regular guitar with a lurching, penile growth. A thick arching forearm arcs over the usual neck, providing an additional board with six heavy strings. ‘This is a harp guitar,’ McKee explains, ‘made by a dentist from Virginia. I’ve had it for about six years, and there’s a gathering in the states where harp guitarists get together. All four of us...’

The instrument is used to lay a base of wide, piano-like tones beneath the higher register of the notes that come from the normal neck, adding extra dimensions to songs like the Michael Hedges-inspired ‘Into the Ocean’. Further tribute is paid to Hedges with ‘The Friend I Never Met’, where McKee’s left-hand phrases are punctuated with right-hand tapping and the woody, percussive knock of the guitar’s body. In the slower, wistful moments, falling leaves and a green feathered cap are all that are needed to complete the medieval, bucolic scene.

Musicians like Andy McKee attract a fair amount of geeks; guys who possess a massive amount of knowledge about guitars and musical theory as well flying vehicles, orcs and beards. ‘This song’s inspired by dorky things like Lord Of The Rings,’ says McKee, introducing the title track from his latest solo record, 'Gates of Gnomeria'. ‘Woooo! Eeeeeyoooo!’ go the crowd, with nary a hint of sarcasm. People punch the air when a rattling, virtuoso rendition of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’ flies past in what feels like two minutes, and even more roars erupt when the riff from Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ crops up amidst the funky and frenetic encore ‘Common Ground’.

Belfast, however, doesn’t have enough guitar enthusiasts to alone fill the Black Box. McKee attracts a varied crowd; drummers and body builders, people in Rasta beanies and those in pork-pie hats, stylish women, atheists and abstainers, drunks and men of every stripe. Most first heard this artist online, and all are upstanding with hoots and applause when the guitarist steps down from the stage. The video for ‘Drifting’ captures a song that is almost nine years old, McKee sitting solitary with his instrument and a mic. But with cameras and video phones capturing the action tonight, it’s about to be joined by more uploads that include the euphoric response he creates in the real world. 

Kiran Acharya