Ken Stringfellow Biltmore Cabaret, Vancouver, BC, January 31

Ken Stringfellow Biltmore Cabaret, Vancouver, BC, January 31
Photo: Steve Louie
Ken Stringfellow has an obvious passion for music, having toured and recorded with everyone from Lagwagon and White Flag to R.E.M. and Big Star. Judging from his performance this evening, he could probably survive entirely on a diet of booze and stage time. Wearing an ash grey suit with a bolo tie and red/blue striped socks peeking out from his polished dress shoes, Stringfellow beckoned the Biltmore crowd out of their seats to start his set, hinting at the kind of intimate interaction that would continue throughout the evening.

After consulting the crowd to see what he should drink, and receiving a whisky sour from an audience member, Stringfellow launched into "Drop Your Pride" from his recent album Danzig in the Moonlight. Backed up by Seattle alt-country band the Maldives, the swinging, sultry cabaret tune got one couple dipping, spinning, and sexy dancing all over the back of the dance floor. After this, he took a break to do a shot with the band, with whom he had played the first few songs of his set, then sent them away to play harmonica and electric guitar solo.

At first, Stringfellow took a mic stand onto the floor and again called the crowd up to surround him. Upon hearing it was someone's birthday, he played the signature happy tune on his harmonica before digging into "110 Or 220 V." Stringfellow pushed the mic aside to use what he called steam power for "Even the Forgers Were Left Fingering the Flakes." Eschewing amplification, he sang right into people's faces, encouraging them to give into the feeling and hoot when they felt it necessary. After polling the crowd to see whether he should play his next song on guitar or piano (piano won), he returned intermittently to a mic, often pushing it away to belt it out au naturale as he plucked away on the keyboard.

Stringfellow's predilection towards a cappella was not mere theatrics. Where his singing often seemed a little washed out in a band setting, the raw emotion of his voice was laid bare on its own. The lead singer of Vancouver's No Sinner, Colleen Rennison came onstage a few times through his set, but it was her pared-down duet with Stringfellow for "Doesn't It Remind You of Something" that was arguably the most moving moment of the set.

The Maldives came back out to finish off the show, helping Stringfellow push well beyond his one a.m. curfew. Rennison and the band's merch girl came out for a raucous rendition of "Bite the Bullet" by Neil Young, one of the dozens of big name performers with which Stringfellow has collaborated over the years.

Yet, despite his credits, Stringfellow remains a cult figure, almost famous as it were. This doesn't seem to bother him. Though there were only a few dozen people in attendance, he purposefully made eye contact with every single one of them. Combined with the variety in his set, from soul-bearing ballads to stadium rockers, and his gentlemanly charm, thanking management and the sound guy a couple times for putting up with his freewheeling style, he is about the most engaging performer one could hope for. It's clear that he loves what he does, and this passion is contagious.