I first saw Amythyst Kiah perform when she opened for Valerie June at The Birchmere in 2017. Since then, I’ve also seen her open for Yola, just before the pandemic hit, and for Brandi Carlile at Wolf Trap last month.
Her performance Thursday evening at Strathmore Music Center’s patio stage series was my first opportunity to see her headline a show, and it was also the first time I’ve gotten to see her play with a band. Here, she was backed up by a bassist and a drummer in a spare but effective format.
Strathmore’s patio series, which kicked off back in June, is an adaptation to our present circumstances. Held outdoors under a tent, patrons are seated at separate tables with just their party, socially distanced to minimize the risk of transmitting infection. Performers play two sets, at 6:30 and 8:30; I attended the latter on Sept. 30.
Amythyst mentioned that this was her first time playing the venue. “I’ve been trying to get here for a couple of years,” she added; an appearance with her band, Our Native Daughters, a group of Black, female roots musicians (in addition to Kiah, it includes Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, and Leyla McCalla) had been scheduled to take place last year, but the entire season was canceled.
A native of Johnson City, Tenessee, Amythyst Kiah brings a modern lyrical perspective to traditional southern Black blues and folk music forms. Her writing often deals with issues of race, sexuality, and sexual orientation (she is queer), and trauma and recovery. Her latest album, Wary + Strange, was released to an enthusiastic reception earlier this year. When I saw Amythyst open for Yola in January 2020, she mentioned that the album was scheduled to come out later that year. However, like many projects that were supposed to come out last year, it was held back until the conditions for its release were more favorable.
Wary + Strange is Amythyst’s second solo release. Her first album, Dig, came out in 2013, and she spent several years developing the material that became the new record. She wrote “Sleeping Queen” in 2016. At the time, she was experiencing stress dreams, and one night she dreamed the melody.
Watch Amythyst Kiah perform “Sleeping Queen” live for Musco Center for the Arts on YouTube:
Continuing with “Wild Turkey,” she said the song “took me a few years to write.” The number is about addressing trauma and “becoming fully myself.” Similar themes appear in “Firewater,” which “was written after going to therapy and reevaluating some of my choices.” “The Ballad of Lost” she described as being about “working through trauma and survival mode… addressing issues in my past.”
Most of Kiah’s set was drawn from Wary and Strange. She opened with “Hangover Blues,” followed by “Fancy Drones (Fracture Me)” and “Tender Organs.” Blues is a big part of what she does; in addition “Hangover Blues,” she also payed “Natural Blues.” Midway through her set, the band took a break for a couple of songs, including a cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” which Amythyst learned in high school. Sonically, Kiah is very different from Radiohead, and she brings something new and different to playing the song. Somewhat humorously, she remarked after the song that a mosquito had gotten her, and that she’d had to finish playing with a very itchy nose from the bite.
Hear Amythyst Kiah perform “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead on YouTube:
While Amythyst had a considerable amount of time between her solo albums, she has been far from dormant. In addition to her frequent touring, she released a collaborative with Our Native Daughters, which received considerable critical acclaim. She wrote the song “Black Myself” for that album, and it earned her her first Grammy nomination. She re-recorded the song, which has become something of a signature for her, on her latest album. She closed her set on Thursday with it.
Having followed Amythyst’s career for several years, it’s been great to see her continuously grow as an artist, and to see her receive recognition she very much deserves. She’s anything but an overnight success, having put in years of hard work to get where she is today. She’s immensely talented, a fine guitarist and excellent songwriter with an incredibly powerful and distinctive voice. I’ve seen her win over crowds that were largely unfamiliar with her, but, for longtime fans, the reception she receives is even more enthusiastic. Amythyst has a lot of important things to say, and she’s someone you should be listening to.