I saw This Is the Kit play in a Wisconsin forest. Kate Stables and her band stood on a small wooden stage, along with The National’s Aaron Dessner. The stage wasn’t big enough to hold Bon Iver’s saxophone quintet, so they played from the ground. It was a thrown-together show not featured on the festival lineup. The collaboration had never happened before, and it wouldn’t happen again.
“The melody goes like this.” Kate hummed a few bars to the saxophones. I was close enough to see the saxophones adjust their reeds. Maybe a dozen rows of people separated me from the stage. I sat on a floor of wood chips with my back against a thin tree, a canopy of larger trees spread high above me. This Is the Kit played a short, quiet performance in that little clearing in woods, a clearing too small for the swarm of festival-goers who heard about the surprise show and trampled bushes, scaled trees, and stood in mud to hear a combination of musicians that would only play together then and there, and only for them.
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I saw This is the Kit again last week in KEXP’s recording studio. I stood ten feet away from Kate Stables in the front row of an audience that barely totaled twenty people, and yet This Is the Kit wasn’t playing for us. They didn’t even know we were there.
“I guess there are people watching through, like, portals in the walls?” Kate said halfway through the show. Her bassist peered at the soundproof, one-way windows. “Portals” implies something narrow and sneaky, but these were large windows, almost floor-to-ceiling, and they covered an entire wall. On one side, in a narrow, black observation room: twenty people who had shown up for the free show. On the other, in a sparkling studio filled with sound equipment and twinkling lights: a band who had shown up for radio time and YouTube views. I was behind the scenes. I was hiding in the fields of a nature documentary. I was a peeping Tom with my own private, faceless view of Kate Stables’ backside.
The studio was bigger than that wooden Wisconsin stage, though not by much. It had room enough for Kate Stables in fuzzy socks and no shoes. Room for her lead guitarist, drummer, and bassist in clothes I imagined they’d wear at home or to the grocery store, and—“Here with us today”—room for the DJ who sat across from Kate. Troy Nelson of the Midday Show introduced This is the Kit to 90.3 FM’s listeners while three videographers and a photographer crouched and crawled and floated through the room, navigating a sea of monitors, microphones, and cables.
The band played four songs from their newest album, punctuated by a five-minute interview. Troy and Kate discussed the nursery rhyme origins of her song Moonshine Freeze, her ten years in the music industry, and the show that This Is the Kit would play that night with The National. They would play on a stage and in a theater, to a crowd almost three thousand strong, where seeing and hearing would go both directions. And, for a moment, Troy and Kate discussed me, hidden behind the portals.
I’ll get to see Kate Stables’ face instead of her back when the recording shows up on YouTube. “This Is the Kit – Full Performance (Live on KEXP).” These recordings are KEXP’s equivalent of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, twenty- or thirty-minute intimate videos of artists like HÆLOS, The War on Drugs, and Portugal. The Man. This Is the Kit’s video will sound the same as what I heard in-studio, plus or minus some mixing and mastering. Everything I listened to that day played through the speakers in the observation room, pumped around the soundproof glass and delivered to me as sanitary, digital signals. The performance itself will be edited, of course, the best angles compared and compiled. A few moments will be removed: tuning time, ands and ums. Maybe “portals in the walls” won’t make the cut, and the experience will remain my own—then and there and only for us—if only by the performer asking if it was happening.