There’s an indescribable feeling in the air when the audience is excited about a support act. Perhaps it’s the ‘we saw her first’ competitive streak, or maybe it’s the collective crossing of fingers that she lives up to the hype. Either way, there’s a palpable buzz, an electricity, at The Met, which means that the audience needs no ushering to their seats and the bar has emptied well before the cue.
Kaia Kater is a Canadian-born, States-educated banjo player who may have only recently released her second album, but strides onstage as though she has been performing all her life – and the calibre of her performance, and the self-assured presentation, indicates she probably has.
Sharing the stage only with a double bassist, she opens with ‘Little Pink’, a song she learnt from a folklorist at the Augusta Heritage Center. Its sense of foreboding intensifies as the repetition swings as sure as a pendulum, the double bass joining the banjo in the condemnation. In the mouth of another performer, its simplistic nature could easily be overdone, urged into a volcanic crescendo that betrays its humble beginnings. But here, Kater allows it to simmer and simper, swagger away, retreat into the dark.
The fact that she can neither see or hear the audience – she sarcastically taunts us: ‘you’re so damn loud, jeez!’ – doesn’t deter her from giving us a detailed introduction to the tune ‘Fine Times At Our House’, originally a fiddle piece composed by an unforgettable character from West Virginian music history, Edden Hammons, who chose the fiddle over the success of his fifth marriage. The tune, this time played on the ‘bass fiddle’, is neatly arranged with the bass climbing ever-higher on the fingerboard and sustaining interest through neat, subtle bowings to anchor the banjo.
But Kater is not just a performer of traditional material or songs from the great American canon, as this short set also demonstrates her own songwriting prowess. There’s ‘Paradise Fell’, a “song about the apocalypse”, which she and the double bassist present a capella, gently swooping and swooning as though to warn the congregation gathered in a hot, dusty church of the future ahead. Then there’s the final track of her set, ‘Saint Elizabeth’, whose power she recognises – it’s the opener on her 2016 album, Nine Pin – as she lets it grow, evolve and fester so it becomes a collective audience earworm for the rest of the evening, surely giving Tim O’Brien, the main act, a run for his money.
And she tells us that though this may have been her first working trip to the UK, she is back for more “in the Fall, then in Spring… hey, all the seasons”. Judging by the cacophonous applause, the audience will take great delight in sharing their newfound gem with family and friends, clamouring to claim: we saw her first.