“This guy is going to knock your socks off!” said sound tech Dave Millington as I walked into Moanahoku Hall at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo last Thursday. The concert kicked off a three-show Big island tour for acoustic fingerstylist Andy McKee.
McKee is a gifted yet underappreciated player. Unfortunately, you won’t hear him on local radio, but McKee’s video for “Drifting” turned the former guitar teacher from Topeka, Kansas, into one of YouTube’s first viral music stars. “Drifting” was composed when he was 18 and has been viewed 150+ million times. “YouTube was a new website back then,” recalled McKee at the show. “We shot eight videos and uploaded them over the next few months. The exposure changed my life and helped me discover my music.”
The front row at McKee’s Hilo concert was filled with local guitar enthusiasts – jaws dropped, cell phone video rolling – some had even attended his guitar camp called Musicarium on the mainland. Others had seen him play the Big island years ago and were thrilled he returned for another round of shows.
McKee talked about his early frustrations trying to make a name for himself in his late teenage years and get his music heard. He entered Kansas’ International Fingerstyle Guitar Championship in 2000 and tried playing cover tunes. He didn’t get anywhere until two years later when he took third place with an original composition. “I walked away with a nice guitar, and a four-foot trophy that I didn’t know what to do with,” joked McKee.
Mckee’s style draws on progressive fingerstylists from the 80’s like Preston Reed and Michael Hedges who favored alternate tuning and a percussion-heavy new-age sound. During his 90-minute show, McKee banged, knocked, and slapped his hands against various parts of two Greenfield guitars – the dark brown one was a baritone model. His set featured mostly original complex compositions with two-handed tapping with over-the-fretboard playing. The exceptionally talented 40-year-old guitarist opened with the late Michael Hedges masterpiece “Aerial Boundaries.”
McKee talked about being influenced by his older sister’s taste in music, and her love of MTV when he was growing up. He played a pair of pop tunes from the 80’s that he adapted for solo acoustic guitar – Toto’s “Africa” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears For Fears.
McKee plays hundreds of concerts per year and has opened shows for Eric Johnson, and Dream Theatre, and Prince requested that Andy join his band for 9 shows in Australia. The guitarist spoke about recently playing 12 shows in China, and then moving on to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan before his concerts in Hawaii. He said he missed his wife Christine and their two sons and was looking forwarded to heading home next week. McKee dedicated “She” to his wife, and “The Reason” was about his two sons.
A little unfamiliar with our Hawaiian term for encore, Hana Hou!, McKee headed for his merch table to sign CDs after the last song in his set. “Oh, I’m supposed to do one more?” said the confused guitarist. He then played “Rylynn” a tune he said Samsung used in a Korean TV commercial. “This guy calls his girl on Facetime, and starts playing ‘Rylynn’ to her,” recalled McKee. “I played it at a jazz festival about four days ago, and you wouldn’t believe all the girls in the front row who came to see me play ‘Rylynn’ – it was crazy!”
Aerial Boundaries | Tribes | Clockshop | Common Ground | Ouray | She | Hunter’s Moon | Africa | Everybody Wants to Rule the World | The Reason | Drifting | Ragamuffin | Tight Trite Night | No Goodbyes
Read my interview with Andy Mckee here: https://www.bigislandmusic.net/talking-story-with-guitar-virtuoso-andy-mckee/
Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: Steve Roby