Every once in a while you come across a musician who seems to have absorbed the collective knowledge of their instrument and, in relatively short order, rearranged that knowledge to assert their own style and expand the boundaries of what’s possible on their chosen instrument. In the small but vibrant world of fingerstyle acoustic guitar, the arc of innovators starts with Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and Reverand Gary Davis, goes up through John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and John Renbourn, and branches out from there to legions of great players—Chris Proctor, Preston Reed, Stephan Grossman, John Renbourn, Peppino D’Agostino, Duck Baker, Michael Hedges, Don Ross, and our own Billy McLaughlin, Phil Heywood, Tim Sparks, and Pat Donahue among them—who, along with hundreds of amazing players you’ve never heard of, are doing things with the acoustic guitar that were once unimaginable.
One of those musicians is 29-year-old Kansas native Andy McKee, who played an impressive set at The Cedar Tuesday night, solidifying his reputation in these parts as an up-and-comer to watch. McKee is best-known as the king of YouTube, because his guitar videos have gotten millions of hits from aspiring musicians who have passed his vids around the world in amazement and admiration.
McKee is no fluke, though, and there is no trickery involved in his playing. He is simply a brilliant musician who spent a lot of time in his bedroom perfecting his chops, and is now emerging as an artist to be reckoned with. His playing style incorporates all the latest techniques in the fingerstyle quiver—alternate tunings, tapping, pickless hammer-ons and pull-offs, percussive slapping, partial capos, pinch harmonics—and combines them with an innovative feel for composition and structure. McKee uses chords you’ve never heard before, in sequences you’ve never seen—but it all somehow works, and, in concert, watching him play is hypnotic, especially if you’re trying to figure out where all that sound is coming from.
I won’t bore you with a catalogue of the songs he played at The Cedar. Following are a few of those fabulous YouTube videos. The first is nifty arrangement of the Toto song, “Africa,” in which he plays percussion and all the parts of the original song. In the second one, “Ebon Coast,” the really cool stuff kicks in about the two-minute mark, and if you listen closely you can hear the “off” chord that somehow sounds perfect. The third video features McKee playing the harp guitar, performing a tune called “The Friend I Never Met,” which he composed in honor of Michael Hedges (the so-called “guitarist from another planet”) who died in a car crash in 1997.