The Fisher King gets weird

Christian Kiefer used to say something like: “Wouldn’t it be cool if you played a show, and I came to see you, and then I wrote a whole column about how bad you sucked?”

Odds are he was joking. Or maybe not. At the time, I was his editor; I sometimes moonlighted as a singer-songwriter, and I’d have preferred something slightly more ego-bolstering. My occasional pathetic stabs at live performance typically concluded with a whimper. My not-so-brilliant musical career pretty much ended when I decided to seek a more sympathetic audience—one that communicated by barking, or meowing.

Kiefer’s musical trajectory, on the other hand, has been far more promising. He records albums, he plays out with a band—which someone with severely impaired social skills, like myself, can appreciate—and he’s helped to foster a literate Americana music scene in this part of Northern California. From the turnout last Saturday at the Fox & Goose, he’s got a fair-sized group of folks who like to see him play, too. And small wonder: A recent three-song set by Kiefer and his band at the same venue last month bordered on the sublime.

On this night, I’d missed opening bands the Stragglers, which everyone was raving about, and another band whose gig got canceled when the Distillery was abruptly shut down by the city. The third combo, Nice Monster, worked the crease between Jimmy Webb and Pat Metheny. Its more effective material delivered a Great Plains impressionism with the instrumental luminosity you hear in the better jam bands.

But I’d come to see the headliner, Kiefer. When he and his band—which featured Nice Monster guitarist (and SN&R contributing writer) Jason Roberts and bassist Matthew Gerkin, along with drummer Chip Conrad and accordionist Simon Ennis—finally took the stage, rather than ease into the material, they went on the attack, like middle-period R.E.M. might. The first few songs, mostly in minor keys, had a joyless, almost taciturn quality, a mindset my Uncle Burt once displayed in his ranch kitchen as he chopped up sheep lungs and oats to make haggis, which he would soon force down the ungrateful gullets of us wee ones as his grim introduction to our shared Caledonian heritage.

Kiefer and company sounded like they—upon staring at Civil War-era photographs—had hit on the idea of putting the feelings evoked to electric instrumentation. Some songs worked well, especially when Kiefer accompanied his fine tenor voice with a banjo, as did a lovely, accordion-laced waltz about the Fisher King. Others reverberated with the sturm und drang of Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” without the grace.

After the Fisher King song, Kiefer swerved into a monologue. “There’s some posters for this show up all over Sacramento,” he deadpanned. “And on at least two of ’em, in an alleyway on 21st and J, somebody wrote, by my name: ‘Sings off-key. Is tone-deaf.’ I just want to tell that person, if they’re here, to fuck off.” The crowd laughed, Kiefer waited a few beats, and then he continued: “Probably wrote a bad review of his band … ’cause his band probably sucked.”

This time, no laughter. It was a weird moment in what was otherwise a pretty swell evening, which ended with a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.”