From kidneys to kittens

Killdevils frontman Jacob Haller’s Mistaken Identity
By CHRIS CONTI  |  November 18, 2009

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BLUES-POWERED Haller, McLaren, Monti, and Keithline.

The Killdevils have been kicking around the area to much acclaim over the past six years. They were nominated in 2007 and '08 for Best Roots Act in our annual music poll, thanks mostly to their yeomen work on the live circuit, playing out at just about every and any coffeehouse and watering hole, including their residency at Nick-a-Nee's in the Jewelry District. Killdevils lead singer Jacob Haller released his solo debut disc Mistaken Identity last week ($9.99 at CDBaby.com and Haller's site, JWGH.org) and will celebrate with a handful of shows to close out the month between here and his hometown of Holland, Massachusetts. Aside from his vast knowledge of old-time and obscure blues artists, Haller cites Randy Newman and They Might Be Giants as influences, which pretty much nails the tone throughout Mistaken Identity; simple, insanely-quirky ditties built around piano, guitar, and the occasional accordion, with subject matter ranging from stolen kidneys to "Adorable Kittens."

Haller met guitarist Chris Monti while both often lounged around the Waterman Co-Op (Haller attended Brown "on and off from 1990 through 1997"), and a common infatuation for iconic blues artists like Bessie Smith and Blind Willie McTell inspired the duo to crank out some covers and originals. Since then, Haller reports about 140 songs in the tank, and 18 months ago the duo decided to add a rhythm section in drummer Matt McLaren and bass player Jeff Keithline (former Amazing Royal Crowns bassman Jack Hanlon fills in at Nick-a-Nee's). The typical Killdevils setlist flows from brooding blues to Motown to Dylan and the Dead (live shows are available to download at Killdevils.com), and Monti told me "no style of music is out of bounds for us."

Apparently there are also no parameters for the subject matter on Haller's often-hilarious 35-minute debut, and the liner notes offer fun insight behind the 12 tracks. Piano romp "Ezra's Song" is no doubt a nod to Newman, but Haller also credits 1940s Chicago piano man Jimmy Yancey as a major influence: "He made these simple and interesting and heartbreaking records that I just love," he told me earlier this week. Lyrically, Haller's inspiration arrived courtesy of the Rhode Island Songwriters Association (RISA) and their monthly Songwriters in the Round series, in which four musicians pen an original composition on a theme chosen the previous month by the audience. Hence subject matter (and song titles) like the dentition of "Absolute Zero," a "Photo Album" made of human skin, and the tale behind album opener "Stale Tequila": "Then I awoke in a bathtub full of ice/You left a note I had to read it twice/It said, 'Call 911, I stole your kidney, thanks for the fun'/I felt myself start to fall apart/Well I know you stole my kidney but you also stole my heart." There are scores of entertaining, real-life quotables throughout Mistaken Identity; on the title track, Haller and his friends get hit on by some dudes in Providence ("Didn't I see you just the other day at Amazing Video down on Empire Street?") and takes a stab at romantic forgiveness on the gently-strummed "You're the Tea In My Teacup." When he's sad he takes a friend's advice and performs a web search for pictures of "Adorable Kittens," and on "I'm a Guy" Haller admits, "I'm a guy who sews and I'm a guy who knits/And I also happen to be a guy who likes chick flicks," the irony not lost while Haller belts out the line in time to George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone." Haller doesn't deny his knit-and-sew prowess, but what about the chick flicks? Really, guy?

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