Kyle Thomas leads his band, King Tuff, in a performance at DC9 on March 21, 2023. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Like the best storytellers, the most gifted songwriters acknowledge that some kind of enriching life experience is necessary, even critical, to crafting compelling songs. And, oftentimes, an artist has to create that experience on their own accord.
Though his spirit has never truly left his small hometown in Vermont, Kyle Thomas would afford himself a wealth of understanding and enhance his youthful curiosity when he moved across the country from Brattleboro to Los Angeles more than a decade ago.
And by going through that brave relocation, he would also widen his network and boost his profile as the member of various remarkable musical projects. But perhaps more importantly, he’d give himself the opportunity to evolve and enrich his most widely known musical persona: King Tuff.
Out on tour to promote his newly released studio album, Smalltown Stardust, Thomas made a stop on March 21 in the nation’s capital, where he delivered an unforgettable, captivating performance at a DC9 nightclub packed with giddy characters who were eager to celebrate this winsome and one-of-a-kind visionary.
When Thomas took the corner stage, his hat brim was pulled down low and his beard was multi-dimensional in its scruffiness, but you could still see the shit-eating grin on his face as folks were cheering from either side of him as he and his mates settled in. Behind him was what appeared to be an electric piano and, on top of it, a plasticine frog that somehow made its way into the venue and would become the focus and delight of Kyle’s attention for much of the presentation.
Listen to the new King Tuff album, Smalltown Stardust, via Spotify:
“We’re going to play some songs off our new record,” Thomas said at the mic. He came across like some kind of kaleidoscopic fortuneteller with a touch of twisted nobility — the grey in his hair a signal of his wisdom as he tuned and assessed the dark room at the same time.
An alluring set would treat those in attendance to each of the songs on the new King Tuff offering, his fourth released on Sub Pop Records. It began with the title track, which indicates by its name and longing expressions that Thomas is still holding on to the dreams of his youth, something “he can’t touch.”
The opening song on Smalltown, “Love Letters to Plants,” saw Kyle scoot back behind the keys, where he had his first real interaction with the fake amphibian, whose name he struggled to recall all night.
“Fred? Jason? They told me and I already forgot,” said Thomas, so full of personality it is uncontainable. “Jason, I respect you and I’ll be singing to you now. … I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in a couple relationships … with my plants.”
Clearly a product of his time inside during the pandemic, this track is some of the most convincing evidence on the album that Kyle is curling toward folk and an emphasis on songwriting, perhaps coming full circle to sounds and textures that might remind some of his most ardent fans of the Feathers project that preceded his first recording as King Tuff, which was simply a self-made CD-R he called Mindblow back in 2006.
With a shift to focusing on the songs themselves, Thomas has somehow invented compositions that — much like some of his most gnarly rock pieces — can grow and take a grander form, effusing more emotion and color as the songs progress. By incorporating varied instrumentation on much of Smalltown Stardust, most notably the use of strings, Kyle’s given himself the added challenge of translating these pieces to stages of different shapes and sizes.
Watch the official music video for King Tuff’s new song Portrait of God via the artist’s YouTube channel:
Last week at DC9, backed by multi-instrumentalist Noel Friesen, bassist Erica Shafer and drummer Corey Rosé, Tuff proved himself to be a jovial, encouraging band leader, transferring his secret energy not just to the audience but to his talented colleagues as well — he and Friesen would even lean back-to-back on more than one occasion and fire off in a thrilling display of dexterity and tomfoolery.
With Shafer and Rosé decorating with tender harmonies, this seemingly tight-knit crew successfully adapted these fanciful and pastoral tracks to an intimate live setting as the rhythms and good-natured melodies from Smalltown moved ticketholders through the evening.
But as most had hoped, Kyle supercharged the set with explosive favorites from his catalogue, giving himself a chance to show that he’s only enhanced his mind-blowing skills as an electric guitarist, wielding either a Fender or a Guild at various points in DC.
He himself and King Tuff as an entity have been enigmatic since Thomas began recording under the moniker, and he wasn’t even so sure then that he’d continue with the project in the early days. But he left the Green Mountain State back in 2011 and since then has grown a passionate following for his stimulating blend of mischievous shed rock, impassioned power pop, and daring psychedelia while gradually but intentionally morphing the sound with each release.
Kyle’s been a busy otherwise: he was a member of Ty Seagall’s band, and he’s longtime bandmates with Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis in the crispy goblin rock outfit Witch, which will soon release its first album since 2008.
For all he has going on, Thomas still unabashedly misses his home state, and his newest King Tuff work pays admirable tribute to it. With affectionate hindsight, he has said that he’s come to appreciate the “boredom” of life in rural New England. And while there’s an assortment of subtle nods and locals-only references in the new tracks, what’s more apparent to non-Vermonters is the ambition Kyle’s taken to keep pushing this concept further toward something wholly unique.
But, as anyone who grew up or has spent time in that part of the country can attest, what also comes through is his rooted love for nature and his fascination with a simple way of life that yielded his aspirations and his early abilities as an artist.
Kyle put it all together for his new record with the help of Sasami, whom he lives with along with Meg Duffy, who records and performs as Hand Habits. The latest album is indeed, by Thomas’ own explanation, an effort to be less rock and bit more traditional, like so much of the music he heard growing up in the Connecticut River Valley. “You’ve got to challenge yourself to get somewhere new,” he told Aquarium Drunkard in a recent Q&A.
Last week, the hazy longing of “How I Love,” the sweet disposition of “Tell Me” and a pensive take on “Pebbles in a Stream” demonstrated the pure sentiment Kyle seems so keen to knead at this point in his career. With the advancing, groovy “Rock River” — a song about taking naked dips in rejuvenating Vermont waters — he showed a remarkable effervescence in gazing back at his old stomping ground.
“You guys don’t go in that friggin’ reflection pool or whatever they call it?” he asked of the DC crowd, referring to the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. Some tried to offer a response; others just cackled.
“That dirty, dirty man in the back there. He’s gone in and he’s better for it,” Kyle carried on with the skit. “The only way to truly reflect is that you must go in!”
Revisit the 2012 self-titled King Tuff album, the first released on Sub Pop Records, via Spotify:
Of course, in performing songs like “Freak When I’m Dead” from his first full release, 2008’s Was Dead, and the title track from 2014’s Black Moon Spell, Kyle reminded of his powerful presence as a vocalist, with a tone that can become reptant as it attempts to undermine the listener’s conscience. Meanwhile, these songs pounded louder than ever before in tiny DC9, with blasting, unrelenting chords coming off Thomas’ guitar strings.
“Amphibi-freak,” he called himself.
He ended it all with a hilarious impromptu demonstration, grabbing his frog pal and using it as a makeshift slide, rubbing it right down the neck of his Fender before hoisting it in the air and then smooching it — several times — right on the mouth.
“DC fucking rocks!” Kyle told the room. “It’s wonderful to see ya. I don’t know what else to say.”
Through experiences and relationships, Kyle’s added layers of wisdom to the music he gives to the world. And as a beloved explorer who’s lived on both coasts, Thomas will undoubtedly continue thriving as an increasingly influential voice and sensational guitar player.
Love Letter To Plants
How I Love
The Bandits of Blue Sky
Pebbles in a Stream
Portrait of God
Freak When I’m Dead
Always Find Me
Black Moon Spell
I Love You Ugly
Here are images of King Tuff performing at DC9 in DC the night of March 21, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.