The Way It Should Be: Book of Kills Live At The Little Grill (2001)
By Jordan Williams

The smoky blue air itself fairly seems on the verge of igniting with the excitement of the moment. A hundred rowdy souls have packed the tiny confines of Harrisonburg, Virginia’s infamous Little Grill. There’s barely room to move, though when the first ragged chords of “Don’t Stop the Scream” ring from Jim Shelley’s Telecaster everyone is instantly in motion, jumping up and down, pumping fists in the air, yelling words of encouragement. 

Book of Kills is back! 

Over the last eleven years, there’ve been various ephemeral incarnations of BOK that have played a handful of gigs here and there, mostly in and around the Shenandoah Valley, but somehow this line-up just feels different. This is a band in the very best sense of the word. There’s a fire and a certain chemistry that I’ve never seen before. A magic that emanates in palpable waves from each member of the group, washing over the faithful (the “handful of lost souls” as critic Jim Santo once labeled them.) We’ve waited three years to hear Jim live again. Almost unforgivably too long. 

I look around at the faces surrounding me. Smiles everywhere. As BOK slams into “I Hang Heavy” and the crowd shouts every word along with Jim, I think to myself: This is good. This is the way music should be. 

It’s not about virtuosity; God knows that’s true. The band constantly seems on the verge of falling apart song after song, though the power of the music is simply indisputable: Jim, unwillingly forced into the role of lead guitarist, constantly wrestles with his instrument, pounding the strings with his pick and fist, literally willing strange, clunky, free jazz-like solos from his amplifier. Jane Firkin, the band’s lithe, striking rhythm guitarist/vocalist has only been playing guitar a year or two. But if she doubts her abilities, it certainly doesn’t show; I can read it in her glowing eyes: This is so cool! I’m in a rock and roll band! Bill Bird, the spirited bassist, provides a complex, melodic, and powerful underpinning to each tune. He moves animatedly to the beat of the music, a beatific smile on his face. And finally, there’s drummer Casey Firkin (Jane and he are sister and brother) whose loose, animated drumming and sweet backing vocals infuse Jim and Jane’s songs with the elation that he so obviously feels as BOK careens from one song to the next. 

And it’s not about style. That’s for damn sure, too: Though he seems more spirited (some fans would venture the adjective ‘crazed’) in his performance than ever, Jim’s no Backstreet Boy. A few wrinkles creep across his face, and his voice after years of too much abuse from Salems and Old Virginian is starting to venture into Lou Reed territory. Casey--bare-chested, eyes closed--rarely draws attention to himself, though he is the true backbone of the group. Jane doesn’t move much, preferring instead to concentrate on her instrument, though I notice more than one male member of the audience has his eyes locked on the pretty guitarist much of the show. Bill…well…Bill is Bill. And that’s good. But when you add it all up, somehow the four of them equal an intangible something that’s almost intoxicatingly, refreshingly singular. 

Jim launches into “Fade”, his searing elegy to the late Kurt Cobain. “Nothing you can say can hurt me now!” he screams over and over during the song’s jackhammer chorus. Everyone sings along. Again. It’s about love and joy, I remark aloud to no one in particular. Pure, unbridled love and joy. And maybe integrity. There’s no irony in this band. No cynicism. These people clearly love playing with one another. And they are, to use a cliché, just happy to be here. Seemingly grateful that anyone would even want to listen to them. 

“Fade” careens to a volcanic end. After nearly two exhausting hours, the crowd still calls out for more. 

“We don’t know anymore,” Jim laments, but these people aren’t having any of THAT. 

“More! MORE!” 

The band huddles. Is Jim actually trying to teach them the chords to a song(?) Then: Budda ba da! Thwack! Budda ba da! Good God, they’re doing the old '60s chestnut, “Little Bit o’ Soul”! Screams. Claps. Everyone joining in on the chorus. What a perfect choice to end the show: “And when you raise the roof with your rock and roll/You’ll get a lot more kicks with a little bit of soul!” 

Yeah. Good for you, Jim. You finally found your band. I’m glad for you. But even more, I’m happy for myself. 

I need all the love and joy I can get these days.