Amythyst Kiah performs at 12th annual Les Paul Festival Concert

Singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah brought Americana to the Berrie Center on Saturday as part of the annual Les Paul Festival Concert. Accompanied by her band, Kiah filled the Sharp Theater with her rich vocals and twangy guitar to honor the late Les Paul, a musical icon who hailed from Mahwah and is credited as a pioneer of the solid-body electric guitar. 

Arch Performances and the Ramapo music department partner yearly to bring the concert to life. In the first few years, the performers invited tended to be male guitarists, but the line-up has been diversified since then.

“About seven years ago, we started thinking ‘Well, Les Paul’s also a technologist. He’d invented a lot of these cool things…’ and so that got us bringing in other artists who… are not primarily guitar players,” Dr. Christopher Reali, associate professor of music, said in an interview with The Ramapo News.

“This is me recognizing the history of things that have happened before and recognizing the people that worked… diligently.”

– Amythyst Kiah

The most recent concerts featured musicians creatively integrating technology into their work. Experimental musical artists Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and Susie Ibarra performed an improvisational style of music as a duo in 2022, using synthesizers and percussion. Cellist and composer Zoë Keating took the stage last year, using only a cello, foot pedals and a laptop to create a lush, layered musical experience.

The concert went a little more mainstream this year, bringing in Kiah and her band who played traditional instruments in a concert style that most attendees are familiar with, but that didn’t make the performance any less compelling.

“She’s a dynamic artist. She’s a great writer. She’s a phenomenal singer,” Reali said when reflecting on why Kiah was selected. “There has not been a woman of color who [has been] the headliner. I was just trying to think about who the artists that are presenting [are] and how does it reflect on the pillars of the college?”

While Reali admits that Kiah “might be unknown to some students,” she is certainly not a new or underground artist. A Tennessee native, Kiah has been in the industry for about 14 years and earned herself a Grammy nomination in 2020 for “Black Myself.” She wrote the song for “Songs of Our Native Daughters,” an album she collaborated on with fellow musicians Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell.

Her identity as a Queer, Black woman largely informs the music she writes. Many of her songs are deeply personal, such as “Dead Stars,” which she explained she wrote about a train ride that she took right after ending a “situationship.”

“Black Myself” is personal in a different way. When introducing the song, she shared that the song emulates different points of view spanning 400 years of history — starting with an enslaved person who wants to be free, then a Black person living under Jim Crow laws and ending with her own.

“This is me recognizing the history of things that have happened before and recognizing the people that worked… diligently,” she said.

Kiah knows how to own a stage, whether singing or just tuning her guitar between songs. She slipped up once or twice, such as when she started a song in the wrong key, but she didn’t miss a beat, unafraid to poke fun at herself in front of the audience.

The concert was Kiah’s first performance of the year, and throughout, she sang unreleased songs that will be on her upcoming album, “We of the Tender Organs.” While the release date isn’t yet set, she anticipates it will be released in the fall.

With the 12th Les Paul Festival Concert now behind them, it only means that it’s time to start preparing for next year’s. Reali said that a week or two after the concert, he and Berrie Center Director Lisa Campbell will start their search.

He’ll be involving his music business students in the search for the first time this year by asking them to find five artists who would make a good fit for the event and venue.

“We’re gonna involve the students in a real-world scenario, so they can maybe help to have some input into what it’s like to book a show at a venue like we have,” he said.


Featured photo courtesy of Carolyn Herring