• Omar Shaukat
The last time I saw Helios, he was playing an Ambient Showcase as part of 2008’s Decibel Fest. The concert was at The Triple Door. I was underdressed. I probably should’ve learned my lesson then—maybe Helios/Keith Kenniff is an artist so refined that he brings an air of expected dignity wherever he goes—because despite yesterday’s Helios concert being a “house show,” I once again felt out of place in my head-to-toe unwashed clothes.

Last night, Kenniff played to a small crowd (maybe thirty) at an exclusive invite-only gig way up north in Snohomish. If I hadn’t been there, I probably wouldn’t have believed it happened. Picture a quaint, unassuming cul-de-sac lined with one-story “rambler” homes. At the bottom of this street, Kenniff performed in an upscale living room packed with rows of folding chairs. I was grateful to have been there, and the gravitational pull of Kenniff’s resoundingly emotive songs helped offset my fears of being perceived as a smelly home invader in a silkscreened seafoam sweatshirt.

Despite my anxiety, the night’s host, Wes, was incredibly hospitable. He’d gone all out in trying to make the evening’s entertainment a genuinely one-of-a-kind affair. Not only had Wes personally programmed and designed visuals to accompany Helios’ set, he’d also rigged up a tricky old-school-Hollywood-style rear projection apparatus so the footage filled a screen mounted on a pair of windows behind the musician. Between songs the visuals would ebb into solid green, and the living room evoked another kind of movie magic, taking on the appearance of a Hollywood half-set with a green screen backdrop. Laptop jockeys in Pasedena would gladly have CGI-ed in a tableau of the Snohomish River. Unlike hypothetical indulgent pixel-scapes, Wes’ rendered projections proved exceptionally complementary to Helios’ sound. The imagery on display included ceiling fans moving in slow-motion, lone figures wandering forests of snow-capped conifers, screensaver swirls, and maps of pulsing dots (think Larry King’s Lite-Brite map-of-America). Some serious props are in order for pulling off those visuals—Helios, like his contemporary Tycho, is pretty consistent across both audio and visual dimensions (see: his ongoing collaborations with Matthew Woodson, the cover artist for nearly all Helios releases), and if Wes hadn’t taken credit for the night’s graphic stimuli, I would never have known they weren’t something Kenniff himself had provided.

More after the jump.

  • Omar Shaukat

The sound, too, was remarkable. There was no PA in sight, and it appeared that Helios’ setup was running straight out of some external computer speakers. I don’t know how, but they sounded great, apart from some fleeting instances of high-frequency crackle. Kenniff started his ten-song set on a (quite literally) mellow note, neglecting his pared-down kick/snare/high-hat kit until halfway into his third song. Eventually he got to playing the kit one-handed while simultaneously fingering keys with his free hand, and it reminded me of just how proficient Kenniff is as a one-man-band. Despite the size of the crowd, he didn’t hold anything back, and his set had that capacious, lush quality which makes his albums such indelible treats. With little more than laptop-triggered ambient samples, a soundcard, synths, and a Danelectro guitar, Kenniff built up tuneful and stratigraphic loops that flooded the room.

He closed out his set with “Emancipation,” the last track from his Eingya and, in this blogger’s opinion, one of his best-ever compositions. The guitar on that song is impossibly emotive, like a syrupy playback of Explosions in the Sky at their most lax and contemplative. It was an ideal way to cap off a nearly flawless set. When the room was done applauding Helios, Wes thanked everyone for coming out and joked, “You don’t get that every day in Snohomish!”