LIVE: Jim “Kimo” West @ Proctors’ Underground, 6/17/16


Review and photographs by Ed Conway

As an appetizer for the Weird Al Yankovic’s Proctors concert later in the day, Jim “Kimo” West played an afternoon concert at Proctors’ Underground. Many people know West as the long time guitarist in Weird Al’s band, but what is lesser known is that he’s also a master of the Hawaiian slack key style guitar.

Slack key refers to the tuning of the guitar – instead of the normal tuning, the guitar is tuned to what is called open tuning where some of the strings are loosened of “slackened” down, usually so that when strummed, they formed chords without additional fingerings. When combined with a fingerstyle of playing, rather than using a pick, it results in a ringing quality to the chords. This harkens back to the Mexican vaqueros, who were brought in to teach the Hawaiians how to tend their herds of cattle. They brought their guitars with them. These guitars were left behind and picked up by the locals who, not knowing how to tune them, just did so to what sounded good to them, resulting in several different tunings.

Many of the selections West played required re-tuning between songs. The resulting down time was the perfect chance for him to give more of the history of slack key, or of the particular song he was about to play. West made the afternoon go quickly, as he turned out to be a master storyteller as well. Some of the songs he played were written about sites around Hawaii such as the beautiful song “Akaka Falls,” which was named for the falls near Hilo. Another story involved shellfish – “Opihi Moe Moe” has to do with how to catch the opihi while they are sleeping, otherwise it’s nearly impossible.

West also played original tunes as well as traditional ones. “Kohala No” even required a tuning he also made up called (are you ready?) Slack Key West (well it was funny when he said it). It also happens to be the title of the CD that features the song. The afternoon ended with a hauntingly beautiful slack key version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Slack key didn’t become popular during the Hawaiian music boom. It doesn’t have the same lilting sounds of steel guitars, but it is every bit as beautiful. The fingerpicking style also doesn’t have the same percussive cadence of the ukulele. In a way, though, it combines the sounds of both. The ringing of the open strings gives the same air as the steel, while the cascading play of the strings adds the pulse.

West is a master of this art form that is starting to gain in well-deserved popularity. While I wasn’t familiar with slack key, I am now a fan and would love to see West come through again for a full show.


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