Singular Amythyst Kiah to Headline All African-American Concert at Davenport’s Adler Theatre June 5
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The trio of musical acts who will light up the Adler Theatre stage Saturday, June 5, are not only all led by African-Americans, they also lead with tremendous talent, heart and soul.
Rising East Tennessee singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah – who was electrifying in her May 6 TV appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” – is the headliner, with Quad-Cities openers Ashley Dean and Soultru. The show (starting at 7:30 p.m.) is presented by The Adler Theatre Foundation Series in collaboration withQuad City Arts.
Kiah, a 34-year-old native of Chattanooga, Tenn., is looking forward to her very first Iowa appearance. It’s just the fifth date on her new tour, which started this week.
Since March 2020 until this month, Kiah performed for just two in-person shows, outdoors, in Virginia.
“Even though everybody was masked; everybody was separated and like, it obviously wasn’t exactly the same as it used to be, but it was still like being able to perform in front of people was just in any capacity, is where it’s at,” she said in a recent interview.
“Black Myself” (which she sang on Jimmy Kimmel) is the lead single off her forthcoming album and Rounder Records debut “Wary + Strange,” out June 18th. The radically reimagined version of her Grammy-nominated song departs from the mid-tempo acoustic original recorded in 2019 by Our Native Daughters, the all-women-of-color supergroup she co-founded with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell.
The track has been hailed by The New York Times, Rolling Stone, MTV, Billboard, and NPR, who called it a “breakthrough for an artist on the rise.”
The incredibly powerful song spans the emotional gamut – from monumental struggles to immense pride in being Black. One verse sings:
I don’t pass the test of the paper bag
‘Cause I’m black myself
I pick the banjo up and they sneer at me
‘Cause I’m black myself
You better lock your doors when I walk by
‘Cause I’m black myself
You look me in my eyes but you don’t see me
‘Cause I’m black myself
It later proclaims triumphantly:
I don’t creep around, I stand proud and free
‘Cause I’m black myself
I go anywhere that I wanna go
‘Cause I’m black myself
I’m surrounded by many lovin’ arms
‘Cause I’m black myself
And I’ll stand my ground and smile in your face
‘Cause I’m black myself
“With that song, it was really important to encompass 400 years of history in like three minutes,” Kiah said recently. “That despite everything that has happened, we’ve been able to stand on the shoulders of resilient people, to be able to do the things that we’re able to do now, right?”
“It’s the curse of being Black ends up transcending into a source of strength and I’m just really happy that Black people seem to be really ready,” she said. “Just really look at our path so we can all heal from what’s happened before. To be able to put this record out, for the people to respond the way that they have, we didn’t know how they were going to respond. We just knew this needed to be done and hopefully it reaches some people.”
She wanted to re-record “Black Myself” with a more urgent, Southern rock sound.
“I had this idea of my head, what it could be like, and really wanted to at some point re-record it,” Kiah said. “It’s within the whole scope of ‘Wary + Strange’ and also, it’s an opportunity to continue to push the conversation about systemic racism within mainstream media.”
With all the issues related to Black Lives Matter, and the treatment of African-Americans by police, it made sense to bring the new version out, she said.
“And continue pushing that conversation forward and then, being able to also give it a sound that highlights the confrontational part of the song,” Kiah said. “It’s a very confrontational song, the most I’ve ever written. So I also have that kind of edge and attitude.”
“It was something that just made sense to do. And it seems like people are really digging it,” she said.
“Black Myself” earned a Grammy nomination for Best American Roots Song and won Song of the Year at the 2019 Folk Alliance International Awards.
“When met with the transcendent quality of her newly elevated sound, what emerges is an extraordinary vessel for Kiah’s songwriting: a raw yet nuanced examination of grief, alienation, and the hard-won triumph of total self-acceptance,” her bio says.
“‘Black Myself’ is the first song I’ve written that was confrontational,” she said. “I’d always made it a point to sing songs that anybody could relate to, but this was something that had been welling up inside me for a long time, and working with three other Black women in Our Native Daughters put me in the position where I finally had the courage to put those words out.
“The reception of the song so far has given me hope that there are people out there who are ready to confront the shared trauma of racism, to look within ourselves and see how we might be perpetuating racist beliefs, and to do what is needed to create equality for all people,” she said.
Growing up wary and strange
Being treated with fairness and equality has been an uphill battle for Kiah, who is lesbian and a rare Black country artist who has excelled in roots and Americana styles.
Her mesmerizing storytelling was influenced by losing her mother to suicide when she was 17 and also by a longtime struggle to find her own sense of belonging.
“A lot of these songs come from a moment in my 20s when I was grappling with trauma while also trying to navigate the experience of being a Black and LGBT woman in a white suburban area in a Bible Belt town,” Kiah said. “I’ve had moments of feeling othered in certain aspects of my life, and it took me a long time to figure out who I wanted to be and how to move through this world.”
The title of her new record (“Wary + Strange”) comes from how she’s felt about herself for a long time.
“That’s how a lot of my existence has been spent, trying to figure out where I fit in – where my purpose is,” Kiah said. “What’s my purpose in life and how can I overcome things in the past that have caused me to be fearful? To fully be myself, like it was really just about a deep part of who I am and how I can be the best artist and person that I can be — and truly enjoy my life to the fullest, without letting them hold me back from living.”
She originally came out as gay in high school in Chattanooga, and their family moved.
“When we moved from Chattanooga to Johnson City, where we moved from one medium-sized Bible Belt town to a small Bible Belt town, I decided I’m just going to wait a minute before I say anything,” Kiah recalled. “And I basically ended up being back in the closet for like seven
or eight years. That’s not what I planned.
“During those years of my 20s, while I was very highly focused on music and on recording and I learned a lot of things from while I was in college, but the thing that got sacrificed was, I had a hard time really opening up to people, letting my guard down,” she said.
“I had this fear of being banned, being rejected,” she said. “So I kept people at a distance.”
Kiah came out again in her 20s, when she was more confident in her music and personality.
“At the end of the day, we are social creatures. We do want companionship, we all want friendship,” she said. “That’s just part of our DNA, regardless of whether we’re super extroverted or not.”
“Once you’re able to really come forward and let that part of your life, be part of your life, I mean it really changes everything,” Kiah said. “There’s still a lot of queer people out there, that they still can’t be out because they’ll be disowned and they don’t have resources. I mean, there’s so many LGBT youth that that become homeless as parents kicked them out because they found something on their computer.”
“I’ve been very fortunate that my family, even when I was a teenager and now I’m not, my father has always accepted me for who I am and regardless of who I decided to be with,” she said. “I’m celebrating the people of my music and I’ve gotten to know and people I’ve become friends with fully support me and what I’m doing and it feels good.”
Kiah is able to pour her heart and soul into her songs, working out her issues.
“For me, music has always been a catharsis and therapy,” she said. “So, when I wrote these songs, I mean I certainly did not enjoy how I felt. That is how I’ve always dealt with my feelings and then it’s been able to turn them into something that has gone above and beyond I think what my teenage self would have ever thought it could.”
In bringing “Wary + Strange” to life, Kiah revisited another form of therapy: the cathartic records she turned to for solace as a child and teenager.
“The way I listened to music when I was younger was very much based on trying to find some kind of healing,” she said. “The way that someone like Tori Amos took these incredibly personal things and expressed them with piano and vocals was spellbinding to me, and it was my dream to create something that evocative.”
At 13, Kiah started writing songs on a Fender acoustic guitar from her parents; she later broadened her musical vocabulary by studying in the Bluegrass, Old-Time, Country Music program at East Tennessee State University.
Not long after self-releasing her 2013 debut, Dig, she began garnering acclaim from leading outlets like NPR and The New York Times, who remarked that Kiah’s “razor-sharp guitar picking alone guarantees her a place among blues masters, but it’s her deep-hued voice that can change on a dime from brushed steel to melted toffee that commands attention.”
With the arrival of Wary + Strange, Kiah aims to offer listeners the same sense of escape that music has provided her, all while building a sense of communion with her audience.
“For anyone who’s struggled with grief or trauma, or felt left out and weird and like they didn’t belong, I hope this album lets them know that they’re not alone in that feeling,” she said. “I hope they understand the experiences I’m trying to relay to them, and I hope they come away from these songs knowing that they can heal from whatever it is that they’re going through.”
“In her graceful interlacing of political commentary and personal revelation, Kiah infuses ‘Black Myself’ with a potent vulnerability that builds and deepens all throughout Wary + Strange,” her bio says. To that end, the devastating “Wild Turkey” recounts the aftermath of her mother’s drowning in the Tennessee River as well as Kiah’s journey from angry denial to heavy-hearted acceptance.
“For a long time, I didn’t understand that when people commit suicide, it’s because they believe the world will be better off without them,” she said.
“I thought [my mom] did it because she didn’t really love or care about me and my dad, and I interpreted that as being abandoned. Writing this song was a way to make amends with what happened and to recognize that numbing myself wouldn’t work for me in the long run.”
The track’s unearthly tones and dreamy background vocals conjure the unsettling effect of being submerged underwater. “I remember hearing that for the first time and crying,” Kiah said. “It’s that sort of attention to detail that made this record one of the greatest joys of my life.”
Re-recording in L.A.
“Wary + Strange” was produced by Tony Berg (Phoebe Bridgers, Amos Lee, Andrew Bird) and recorded last year at the legendary Sound City Studios in Los Angeles.
Kiah recorded the album twice (in 2018 and 2019) before linking up with Berg—then scrapped virtually everything and started over from scratch. “My favorite records are the ones that pull you into another world and completely absorb you, but I didn’t quite know how to get there on my own,” she said.
After an introductory session with Berg in early 2020, Kiah found herself floored by his transformation of “Fracture Me,” a bluesy portrait of
longing for obliteration. “I knew I needed to work with Tony when he came in with a bass harmonica to use instead of a bass [guitar] and then got out the Mellotron and added a flute line at the chorus of this country blues song,” Kiah recalled.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to see what else he pulls out of his bag of tricks.’ I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a moment of thinking, ‘Am I really going to record everything all over again?’, but I just kept coming back to, ‘What do these songs really need?’ My goal is to keep growing as an artist, which means trusting the process and doing whatever it takes to make a great record.”
She recorded with guitarist Wendy Melvoin (Prince & The Revolution, Madonna, Neil Finn), guitarist Blake Mills (Fiona Apple, Alabama Shakes, Dawes, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman), bassist Gabe Noel (Kamasi Washington, Father John Misty), and pedal steel guitarist Rich Hinman (k.d. lang, Tanya Tucker).
“The recordings that I made in 2018 and 2019 were starkly different. And the idea was that I wanted to find a way to reconcile my interest in roots and my background playing alternative music,” Kiah said. “One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it forced me to like, slow down, get sleep, eat better, stay hydrated.
“Like it forced me to take the rest, so when I went to the studio it was the most enjoyable recordings I ever had made,” she said. “Because I was there focusing on the music.”
Kiah said it was incredible working with Berg at Sound City. “It was amazing to work with Tony, obviously being in that studio. I mean, like Fleetwood Mac’s recorded there; Rage Against the Machine has recorded. There are just amazing, legendary, iconic records that have been made there,” she said.
“When they’re creating a recording, they’re fully present and excited,” Kiah said. “They were excited about my songs. And the whole goal with Tony, he said the whole goal here is to make your voice and your words front and center of this music. All things we do around it are just going to enhance it but we don’t want to drown your voice in guitars and drums and bass and a bunch of different sounds.
“Instead we want to really make this about you, ‘cause it is about you, right?” she recalled. “So with that in mind, just vocally like he was really good about kind of helping me. Like trying to push my voice in different directions.”
“I’ve grown as an artist and my ability to take direction and not take it personally, or not feel personally attacked,” she said. “We were just on the same wavelength and had open conversations about how we felt about certain things.”
“And it really made for a record that my 17-year-old self would have absolutely bought and listened to,” Kiah said. “It has this very magical kind of birth. Some quality within the production, taking my songs and surely making them ‘Wary and Strange’ in a way that I didn’t know they could be.”
Rolling Stone in 2019 wrote that Kiah “has emerged as one of Americana’s great up-and-coming secrets over the past few years, amassing a following with a relentless touring schedule and a deeply-rooted mastery of the country-blues…”
Billboard wrote that her new “Black Myself” remakes it “with a rendition that will put peel the paint off the walls. Her blistering reimagining of the track — originally featured on Our Native Daughters’ acclaimed 2019 set, Songs of Our Native Daughters — puts it in a rock setting, with her vocals front and center, and adds a riveting urgency. A must-listen about living in the land of white privilege…”
Kiah also recently earned three 2021 Americana Music Award nominations. She’s nominated for Emerging Act of the Year and Song of the Year, for the solo rendition of her “Black Myself.” She’s also nominated for Duo/Group of the Year as part of Our Native Daughters. Kiah joins Jason Isbell and Valerie June as the most-nominated artists this year.
Ashley Dean finds hope and joy
Growing up, she sang in her Rock Island church, and her current faith home is Life Church in East Moline.
“Some Sundays, I might be leading the house. I might be singing background and supporting the lead,” Dean said recently. “Either one, I’m
great with the whole premise of just to serve.”
She graduated from Rock Island High School in 2009, but didn’t earn an associate’s degree until 2018 from Scott Community College. She graduated from St. Ambrose University earlier this month with a bachelor’s in marketing, and has worked several years as a YouthHope REACH staff member.
“St. Ambrose felt like home, a place where I belonged and where I would grow and thrive,” Dean said in an online SAU feature, which noted she first enrolled as a Music Education major.
“When I went to see what it would take to switch my major to Marketing, I was told it would cut the time it would take me to graduate. I realized it was an open door and followed it considering I had already been on such a journey to finish my degree,” she said.
At YouthHope, she works as a mentor for area students.
“I would definitely say being there for the kids, I think, with this job you’re able to be who it is that you might have needed at that particular age,” Dean said. “And then being there for middle school, high school, teenage girls. That’s a very, very instrumental point in time in their lives, where they need that guidance.”
At St. Ambrose, Dean sang in the University Chorale, studied voice with Nathan Windt, helped her fellow classmates promote diversity and inclusion, and broadcast her energy and enthusiasm on the KALA-FM airwaves. In summer 2019, she got the chance of a lifetime to sing backup vocals for the legendary Stevie Wonder on tour.
“It was all about the right person seeing the right thing at the right time,” Dean said, noting one of her performances that she posted was seen by a family friend on social media who works in the entertainment industry. “They saw it, and they celebrated it as it was posted, but then ended up contacting my mom and saying, hey, I’m working with Stevie and they’re like, he’s looking for background singers,” she recalled. “I think you should try out.”
Dean went to Los Angeles to audition and was nervous as she heard Wonder playing piano.
“It was like it more of an anticipation. Like oh my gosh, I’m about to see Stevie Wonder, and as soon as I saw him, all of that dissipated,” she said. “He was very, very kind and very fun,” Dean said, adding that she sang Whitney Houston for her audition. “Yes, it was probably the easiest audition I’ve ever done. Anyone would think it would be the complete opposite, but it was the easiest audition — easygoing, it was great, a wonderful experience.”
Some of Dean’s favorite Stevie songs are “As” and “Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing.”
“He has a lot of music, but it all carries the same feeling of joy,” she said. She sang for two months in rehearsals and usually with four or five other women on tour, which just included three concerts – in Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Colorado, and overseas in London and Dublin. That was her first time visiting Europe. “Wow, it was really cool,” Dean said. “It was wonderful. It was great and I would love to go back.”
That September, Dean also got to perform with Wonder (who is blind) for the opening of the new Golden State Warriors basketball arena, Chase Center, in San Francisco, Calif.
“I’m here in the Quad-Cities, in a place that some people don’t even know, they know nothing about,” she said. “For everyone that I was surrounded by – Stevie’s team, the singers, his vocal director is a legend.”
“I’m surrounded by greatness — little old me, from Rock Island, Illinois,” Dean said. “I got plucked out and I’m amongst all these people. I’m in the room right here with them and it was someone pointed out to me that there was a moment. There was a time where I couldn’t see my worth, but it took someone who honestly, cannot see – to see that value, that worth, that gift in me and gave me that opportunity.
“It was life-changing. I’m grateful, I’m very grateful,” she said.
The Colorado concert was great because her mom was able to go see her. At the Chase Center, they had a lot of fun with that one.
“Having an opportunity to song a duet with Stevie was great,” Dean said. “It was impromptu. We did ‘If You Really Love Me.’ He stopped after the first chorus and said ‘I don’t want to sing the next verse; I want someone else to sing it,’ and we’re all like, I don’t know who he’s gonna call on. And he called on me. It was fun, it was hilarious.”
This June 5 won’t be her first time on the Adler stage; Dean was in a youth production of the musical “The Wiz” there and has loved seeing concerts there.
Right before she got the call for the June 5 show, she recalled, “I wonder what it would be like to perform at the Adler, like just me. And then, here’s the call. Here we are.”
Dean and her band will perform for 45 minutes, to include some jazz, a Stevie Wonder and a song called “I Got Sunshine” by Avery Sunshine. “We’ll just have a good time,” she said. “I’m excited about this.”
Soultru meeting bucket list
From an early age, Banks showed a love for music that was encouraged by his family — who were involved in their local church band and
fostered a love for all types of music. Growing up, he performed in church and the Davenport Central High choir.
Banks also showed interest in writing poetry. It didn’t take long for him to combine his love for singing with his poetic skills, and he began to write original songs. With a soulful voice, Banks has forged his own unique sound, with a wide range of influences, including Gavin DeGraw, John Legend, Yelawolf and Son Little.
Banks credits his versatility as his strongest musical attribute.
Before the pandemic, Soultru (which includes Cadence Graham) did several shows around the country, through Sofar Sounds, the international music events presenter.
“They’re all over the world too. It’s pretty crazy,” Banks said recently. “Like you don’t have to do much at all. You just got to show up and it’s
like they have enough people that know about them, you know. They’ll be like, it just depends on the venue or whatever that they have. Like you’re just in a living room or sometimes it’s coffee shops.”
He grew up in gospel churches and one of his uncles used to sing in the choir. “I loved his energy and just what he did, and that was a big influence on me wanting to do music,” Banks said. “I got into listening to gospel music.”
He was in choir through senior year of high school.
“The more I grew confident in my voice, the more people heard me, the more people were like, hey, you have a really good voice,” Banks said. “I wasn’t a confident high-schooler at all. We were super poor, we were super sheltered. Other things were going on.”
His mom struggled with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and he was raised in a single-parent household. “I didn’t want to put my burdens, or how I was feeling onto someone else, and bring them down,” he said.
“I kind of confided in writing poetry and I started that freshman year,” Banks said. “I think gradually, writing poetry helped my mind and my mental state. At some point, I was like – songs are just poetry sung. That’s when I was like, I’m writing songs and I didn’t realize I was writing songs until now.”
He got into R&B and hip-hop, and found people to put a band together. His day jobs have included working in restaurants, as a FedEx driver and is now working part-time at Stoney Creek Inn, Moline.
Soultru is signed to Kansas City label The Record Machine. They sometimes travel with a full band and other times as a duo or solo, and blend soul singing, acoustic guitar and piano to make relatable music for all.
A December 2020 review of the EP “The Truth” (at littlevillagemag,com) says: “Soultru’s music has always been deeply personal, and the vulnerability is even stronger here. ‘Black Eyed Peas’ starts with a near-death experience and moves from a musing on mortality to an affirmation of faith and being watched over by departed family. ‘Come and Gone’ is a kiss-off to bad love with just enough hip-hop inflection on the verses to remind you where he’s coming from. ‘We’ is the flipside, an achingly tender song of devotion and love, and ‘Me and Mine’ is another song of family, struggle and perseverance.”
Banks hopes to release another hip-hop EP this August, and later a full-length record with a band.
“I always saw myself as wanting to be a performer, and after I started writing poetry, one day I was sitting around, going through the motions, and I wanted an artist name,” he said of coming up with “Soultru.”
“What are the words I’m putting out to the world?” he recalled. “I’m speaking from my soul, true soul. I didn’t like that, so I flipped them around. ‘Soul true,’ and it worked itself out that way. I dropped the ‘e,’ because the ‘e’ didn’t look good to me.”
Tonight (May 29) from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., Soultru is doing a Facebook Live with NAMI and Joy Avenue Media to bring people a night of music to help promote mental health awareness.
“It means a ton to me, because we grew up two blocks from Central, which is predominantly African-American,” Banks said. “Mental health – my mom didn’t talk about it when she was in the right state of mind to talk about it. My aunts, uncles and grandma didn’t really bring it up. When you don’t understand something, and a doctor has a tell you about it, it’s hard to tell kids about the person they live with and they love and want to be there for them.
“A lot of times, that bothered me, because I just wanted a normal family,” he said. “She was trying to be a dad and a mom, and be strong, but mentally, her body just didn’t want to be where she needed. I just want to bring awareness to that and help people understand.”
“The earlier on people can get help, the better,” Banks said. “It’s something I’ve had to adapt to, and I’m still trying to figure it out emotionally.”
Music and poetry help him to “get my thoughts out of my head and it continues to do that,” he said. “With my mom being the way she was, we didn’t share; we didn’t talk about emotions. We talked, but the older we got, the more her schizophrenia started showing up and the talks became less and less.”
“I’m still introverted when it comes to talking about my emotions and feelings,” Banks said. “Those things come out a lot more when I’m performing or in my songs.”
Music is the easiest way for him to express himself.
“I have to learn to deal with these feelings on my own in order to help myself,” he said. “At some point, poetry and reading those words – whether aloud or just in my head — it wasn’t enough anymore. So one day I started singing them and I think one of the first songs I wrote, I started crying because it gave me this release of just all those feelings that I have held in.
“From then on, I was just like I want to be a singer,” Banks said.
In a Portland show, he recalled meeting ladies from Japan.
“Their English wasn’t the greatest, but they still purchased the CD and that was the connection I made with someone.”
“And it’s crazy because at that point you kind of know, even though they might not be able to speak English very well, you know they understand it,” he said of music.
Though Banks performed last weekend in downtown Rock Island, he’s really looking forward to playing at the Adler.
“For me, just mentally, I’ll cry on that stage just because it’s one of those things, it’s like it’s a bucket list thing,” he said. “If you live in Davenport and you’re an artist and you’re like, I want to play the Adler sometime. That would be cool.”
“You grow up and do choir and when you go and graduate out of school and you’re just like, yeah, this would be cool to do,” Banks said. “It’s one that I’ll be able to, you know, fingers crossed, we’ll be crossing that off the bucket list.”
Tickets for the June 5 show are $22, $27 and $32, available at the Adler Theatre Box Office (136 E. 3rd St.) or online at TICKETMASTER.COM. Tickets to this socially-distanced event will be sold in pods. Guests must purchase all seats within a selected pod.
For more information on the Adler Theatre Foundation series, visit adlertheatre.com.