A pigeon hops through the open door of the plywood camper, sneaking up behind an unsuspecting Keith Kifer, who’s busy preparing lunch. Kifer, otherwise known as the Blues Wizard, gently shoos the bird away, exclaiming: “How rude! He didn’t even knock.”
How rude indeed, to sneak up behind a burgeoning blues legend. Kifer has been making a name for himself in San Diego, as the lead guitarist for The Blues Wizard and the Masters of Humility. He is most noticeable when in full regalia – bright blue sport coat, his brilliantly white beard flowing down his chest, his bald head shining in barroom lights – and playing his homemade dobro.
We’re in Kifer’s home, an impressively constructed camper, with solar panels on the roof and an ocean view through the open door. Other people have forked over a year’s salary for such a view. The walls are covered with photos of Kifer playing music with various others, his concert posters, and various cards and drawings from friends. The bedspread is patterned with planets and stars. Essentially, it’s a child’s playhouse, a fortress – cozy, self-sufficient, and built carefully by him to suit every little need, right down to the book rack above the bed. The whole thing is probably no bigger than your average bathroom.
Kifer, who builds a lot of his own instruments using only recycled materials, is trying to explain to me how he made his dobro (a type of acoustic guitar with steel resonating disks inside the body under the bridge): “So I wasn’t using this guitar, and I thought since it wasn’t hurtin’ anything I might as well experiment with it. I got a pan lid and a vegetable steamer rack to put in the hole, put the strings across it, put a pick-up right in the barrel, and what I got is a sound that dobro players are jealous of.”
Kifer’s other creations include a bass guitar, also with a vegetable steamer front piece, and a drum set made out of suitcases. Everything that he creates is made using objects collected from swap meets, thrift stores, friend’s houses, or his own little camper. He learned instrument building from Dave Mallard, a San Diegan luthier (builder of stringed instruments) and jazz musician. He took what he learned and turned it around, recreating instruments from rejected items. There’s a history for every piece.
“I’m pretty sure the first dobros were made the same way,” Kifer adds, “Somebody stepped on a guitar and said, ‘oh my god what am I going to do.’ So they patched it with a metal bowl and played it.” He picks up a guitar while he speaks and strums gently, effortlessly, a slow blues riff, his surprisingly thin fingers moving from fret to fret with a childlike confidence. Most things about Kifer are intriguingly childlike, despite his age (56), his white beard and the intricate maze of wrinkles around his eyes. His enthusiasm is infectious, and his burbling Santa Claus chuckle, complete with comfortable belly, only adds to the innocent mystique. It would be hard to guess that 15 years ago Kifer was a skinny, slightly mad, alcoholic.
He lived in a drug house toward the end of his addiction, plucking on a guitar that was his prized (and one of his only) possessions, even though he had no idea how to actually play it. Kifer stops strumming and looks at me, crinkling his eyes up in a grin, which in turn crinkles half of his cheeks, a wrinkle gathering. We’re sitting next to each other on the low couch cum dining area, and he leans in confidentially.
“I was not sane. I was sitting in the drug house at three in the morning, trying to play the guitar, and I couldn’t do it. In an act of despair, I took the guitar and started smashing it. Then I cried myself to sleep. Without an explanation why, that guitar was very important to me.”
Shortly after this incident, Kifer became sober, and has been so for fifteen years now. If he has a new drug, it is undoubtedly music. The man who destroyed a guitar out of pure frustration fifteen years ago now builds his own instruments. He is also a professional musician, with six CD’s of original music recorded, multiple musical projects in the works, and a band family slowly forming around him, including his “musical soulmate” Rosie Mac, whose cherubic face is accompanied by a surprising set of pipes, crooning like Billie Holiday one moment and roaring like Janis Joplin the next.
After our first meeting, Kifer called me, chuckling into the phone with refreshingly undisguised joy when I greeted him as Blues Wizard. He told me that the band would be playing in Clairemont in a few days, and he would love if I could be there. So of course I come, walking in as Rosie is mid-wail, howling in a voice that is much bigger than her 24-year-old self. Meanwhile Kifer is standing, rapt with his guitar, busting out a masterful string of blues notes. The song they are playing is “Love Song to Myself”, one of Rosie’s, and her voice is sexy and angry and come-hither all at once. This is delta blues, no doubt about it, dirty and rich and raw. This music wears Carhart jeans, but can get down with silk dresses.
After the show, I find Rosie talking to a group of fans and friends, and compliment her. She suggests that we go out in the band’s van to talk for a minute, since it’s quieter out there. The other band members, the very hyper, whippet thin drummer named Bucky Stephens and a quiet, solid bassist Austin Blacker, are loading gear into the back, so we sit up front.
We talk about Kifer, and she describes him as: “a dear old friend, like a second father.” I mention that Kifer told me that as a songwriter, he is a whore with his feelings. After a recent break-up that Mac went through, he jokingly demanded two songs out of her as a result. Mac looks into her tea, her mouth twisted down. I instantly feel that I’ve said something terribly wrong. While I’m wondering how to correct this awkward situation, Mac looks up and says: “Well I haven’t written a song yet, but I have a poem. Do you want to hear it?”
Of course I do. We are sitting in the van outside the bar, muted music thumping, Stephens and Blacker in and out of the van, loading instruments. The atmosphere doesn’t faze Mac a bit, and she launches into the poem as though we were at a smoky coffee shop, with bongos in the background and berets on our heads. Her voice is raw and loaded with passion. She has immediately switched to performance mode, and I am absolutely entranced. The woman has soul. Afterwards, as I sit there slack-jawed, she smiles and is a 24-year old again.
“That’s my first time writing a poem like that, actually,” she says. I tell her I wouldn’t have known. It sounds like Stephens has dropped a drum in the back.
Kifer discovered Mac a year ago, at an open mike night. This was after he’d been playing guitar and studying the music business for fourteen years, going through singing partners, looking for someone he could really have a career with. He found her, this dynamo, who demands that Kifer stay healthy now that he’s getting older, because she wants a career with him. So he rides a bike everywhere he goes, to stay healthy for Rosie. Mac and Kifer have grown substantially together since they met last year, on Mac’s birthday no less. Oddly enough, it was this year on the same date that Kifer was able to tell Mac that they were booked for the Animus River Blues Festival this coming summer, opening for the arguable “Queen of the Blues”, Shemekia Copeland.
“It was like the universe’s birthday gift to me,” says Mac, grinning, looking ridiculously young and cute with round cheeks and a daisy tucked behind her ear.
“We’re both having trouble keeping our feet on the ground now,” adds Kifer later, “this is taking off.”
It’s a long time coming for Kifer. Born in Pennsylvania, his parents moved farther and farther west, chasing the cowboy dreams of his father, a Louis L’Amour nut. Kifer and all of his siblings grew up with alcohol problems. He is estranged from his children, and divorced from his wife. He can talk about this all with a calm sense of detachment. I silently listen as he details the crumbling former career as a custom car painter, the slow slide from owning his own shop to working on cars in a drug dealers back yard in exchange for food and drugs. He seems not to be effected by the fates of this former Kifer. The current incarnation of Kifer is fresh and untarnished, which may explain his childlike wonder.
The past only exists now in his music. With age, Kifer has an enviable experience to pull from – travels, adventures, and rich emotions, a gold mine for a bluesman. Nearly every heartbreak or catastrophe in his life has found it’s home in the rich, swampy sound of delta blues. “The sound came from here, San Diego,” Kifer says, stroking his beard, “It came from my travels; it’s 56 years of experience that you hear in that music.” This is especially poignant in Kifer’s “Come to Pray”, which Mac belts out in a smoky voice: “I’m standing at the gates of hell/ from all the places I have fell…lord help me/I’ve come to pray.”
I can’t reconcile this shadowy, crazy, out of control past Kifer with the Kifer who sits before me, strumming the guitar that he has fondly named Nadine and radiating comfort and confidence, pleased that he has a gift for his craft. I wonder to myself how he could forgive so much, and let go of so much, to become content again. Even to become successful.
Unknowingly, he answers me, looking up and fixing me with his pale blue eyes, and saying simply: “I’m always onstage, I live onstage. This is a play and we get to write it. Why not act the part you want to act?”
Mary E. Mann is a recent arrival from points east and north. She has just recently joined the OB Rag blog circle of community bloggers.