On Saturday evening Toh Kay rolled into the Iota Club in Clarendon for a show with Timothy Bracken. The small audience of loyal Toh Kay fans waited patiently for the one man band and his 6-string. The show started about a half hour late – the bartender said they were waiting for the place to fill up. It didn’t. But this space added to the intimacy of this already homey venue, with only 40 or so people scattered about the room.
The night began with Timothy Bracken, who came off to a slow start. He said his opening section was the “stoner portion of the set”, which I assume was intended for mellow, subtle music. It came off a bit too subtle – a soft breeze could knock over one of those early songs. As the night progressed so did my opinion of his work – well-trodden chord progressions and inert melodies led way to what he called “strange song territory” with interesting songs such as “Aquarium.” “Don’t Get Bit” erased any doubts that he could play his Gretsch guitar, with Bracken’s style seeming to draw from years of just sitting alone joyously fiddling with the instrument. Even though there weren’t many musical surprises in the course of the set, Bracken impressed with a few gems. I’d love to see him again playing around a coffee shop or small club.
Then Toh Kay came out to play. Tomas Kalnoky, who goes by the pseudonym Toh Kay, had a rapport with the audience I haven’t often seen. It was as though old friends had come together around a camp fire, with those seated before the stage singing backing melodies to the shoeless Kay. His wasn’t the typical stage banter – inside jokes flew and he ripped on the audience for getting silent between songs. After asking what the audience wanted to hear, he dismissed requests, rephrasing his question, “Do you want to hear what I’m going to play next?”, which was greeted by cheers and laughs. It was as though the music had given performer and audience a personal relationship.
Kay oozed musicality, with an impressive guitar style seeming to draw from flamenco, meshed with punk, folk, and sprinkled with a bit of Americana. His picking wasn’t perfect (he buzzed a fair share of notes and his slurs weren’t smooth), but musically his guitar work was astoundingly complex for the fact that he was singing while picking. Guitar lovers rejoice. His lyrics seemed to draw from a wealth of life experiences and his mature musical timing fit well with his song-crafting skills. Kay seemed to know exactly where the melody needed to fit in the music, which is a challenge for any songwriter.
For all his positive qualities, I was left with the taste of a selfish performer. Getting on stage to perform is exceedingly difficult (I’ve done it myself), but Kay didn’t seem completely concerned with how the audience was receiving the show. Perplexingly, he didn’t remember many of his own lyrics and would draw recollection from the papers he set up in front of him or from shouted cues by the audience. Half a dozen times he just stopped a song mid-way through because he couldn’t remember all of it. Most of the audience didn’t seem to mind this, and many laughed, but they seemed so acquainted with his music that they could fill in the blanks mentally. For someone like myself who was new to his music, it was a very poor introduction to an otherwise enchanting musical repertoire.
Toh Kay is a great musician – nobody can deny that – but I’m going to stick to buying his recordings instead of seeing him live. I work for my money, and when I pay to see somebody play it’d be nice if they could work for their money, too, and put their full effort into being on stage.
As far as the venue, there’s no question that the Iota has great acoustics – hard walls and wooden rafters make for great reverb. The board tech seemed to tack on a little extra reverb effect to everything, which I could have stood to be dialed down a hair. The people are nice, and there’s plenty of room for dancing, if you’re into that thing. This cowboy doesn’t dance, though. Stop by there for a drink and a song sometime.