It was only recently, a couple of years ago, that I stumbled onto the best way to describe David Kilgour: his approach, his playing, his position. I considered him a nonchalant phenomenon. In fact I’d borrowed the term – overheard it on a Paul Kelly song many years earlier. But it seemed to sum up Kilgour, an almost anti guitar-hero. There he is, back-turned, sunglasses on, scuffing a shoe. And all the while he’s tearing out some craggy guitar line that seems to sum up the coastline at the bottom of the South Island or feels like the hammock for you to hang your heart in as you’re swept up and carried along with the best music you might ever hear.
This nonchalant phenomenon.
I first heard Kilgour on record – The Clean, and some of his solo material. When I first saw him play live it was a solo acoustic set; just a wee spot as an opener on the bill. And he was great. These Dylanesque mumblings and meanderings. A great acoustic player. But I was looking forward to hearing those shimmering electric lines.
Shortly after that acoustic set I got to hear Kilgour as hired gun, sitting in with Barbara Manning. In fact, he was seated. The shades on, either three days into a hangover or just looking like he might be bored. Sounding like he had nothing else to live for but playing the guitar. He was almost elegantly dishevelled, privy to some other way of thinking. It all just made sense.
And from there I’ve had the chance to see him solo and with bands. With The Clean. With Lambchop. With Barbara Manning. With his now regular backing unit, The Heavy 8s.
Kilgour could be celebrated for many reasons, that mumble-stumble singing, the great writing – but also he could be the greatest guitar player in the world. Well, it’s a type of guitar playing, and type of guitar player, that’s not ever going to be for everyone. (A huge part of what makes his style and approach so appealing).
The music is perfect. It is ramshackle. And then – again – it is perfect. And Kilgour has his back to the audience for part of any show. He’s locking in with brother Hamish on the drums, or he’s simply turning away. He’s swaying into – and sometimes away from – the music. And then he’s all but shrugging his shoulders between solos, even though he’s likely just peeled off something that could have been on any Velvet Underground album – or any album influenced by the Velvet Underground. And then, on from that, he’s the owner, now, of a special brand of space-age country sound. It takes those shards of VU guitars and fashions a strange swirl of mini-magic through what is nearly psychedelia and what is always propulsive – chugging and churning and burning. Spurning accolades (such as this).
Yes David Kilgour might hate to hear this. To read this.
But he’s one of my all-time favourites, one of the guitar heroes I admire and love the most. Because his is a sound so human – and it could only come from him. And that he has managed to make it look like he might rather be doing anything else one minute, and then just as quickly he’s lost deeper inside the song than anyone else I’ve ever seen – well that just seals the deal.
No, what seals the deal is that for over 30 years now he’s been writing and recording and performing music that could only come from him. His hands, his voice, his head. His heart.
He keeps finding new ways to reach into that same old bag of tricks and turn out something no one else could ever think of, could ever play, would ever say in just that way.
He’s truly phenomenal. And yet he seems so thoroughly nonchalant.
This nonchalant phenomenon.
This was originally published as part of a series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page.