When I told people that I was going to see Khruangbin, I was kind of surprised that nobody had ever heard of them. The show had been sold out months earlier and they have a very large, cult-like following around the globe. Their fans include Iggy Pop and Anderson Paak.
This fantastic trio, featuring Mark Speer on guitar, Laura Lee on bass and Donald Ray Johnson Jr (DJ) on drums was formed in their home town of Houston Texas in 2007. Their first album was released in 2010.
Speer and Johnson met in 2004 while playing in St. John’s Methodist Church gospel band. (DJ was the organist). Speer met Lee in 2007 and taught her how to play bass. Watching her dance in high heels, coyly plucking at her XS bass it’s hard to believe that she used to be a math teacher.
I found it difficult to pronounce the band’s name but I’m finding it even more difficult to describe their music. (The world Khruangbin is Thai for airplane which was Lee’s idea.) They combine Psychedelic, funk, dub, jazz, rock, soul and many more styles with Middle Eastern and Asian flavors to create their signature sound which is known as Thai funk.
The first time that I had actually seen them, they were opening up for Leon Bridges at Place des Arts about two years ago. I was immediately hooked to their hypnotic vibe. I couldn’t figure out how these three unlikely bandmates got together and could sound so exotic. So when I heard that they would be headlining at one of my favorite venues I couldn’t wait.
It was a perfect summer night in Montreal, not too humid and the energy in the intimate Corona Theatre was laid back. I caught the opening act which was perfectly suited for the gig. Kikagaku Moyo, a psychedelic guitar band from Tokyo set the tone for the night. As I gazed across the fully packed room, everyone seems to have the same expression of wonder and anticipation on their face. It’s the look that Laura gives Mark when they dance towards each other and share a groove.
Khruangbin appeared promptly at 9:15 and got straight down to business. In true psychedelic fashion, looking like a perfectly miss-matched trio of 70’s superheroes. Miss Lee in a white ruffled dress and silver high heeled sandals, Mr. Speer in slim-fit suit and cowboy boots and Mr Johnson in a Mexican poncho. And of course, Lee and Speer wore their long black signature wigs.
This talented trio has managed to combine such an eclectic assortment of musical genres and create a wonderfully unique sound. Their celebration of different cultures and eras allows us to enter a whole new world. Khruangbin is the garam masala of psychedelic rock.
Beginning with August 12 from “The Universe Smiles Upon You” (2015), they teased us for about an hour, slowly building up the excitement like really good foreplay. By 10 o’clock most of the crowd was dancing and the rest were just enjoying the buzz.
Khruangbin is an instrumental band with very little lyrics, so when they played “Evan Finds The Third Room”, the crowd went wild. Laura has this sexy move, where she sways her hips from side to side while bending her knees that makes you wish that you were her bass. All she has to say is “yes” and she’s got your full attention. When the big green rotary phone rang and she said “hello Montréal” you can’t help but become a fan.
It was the band’s acknowledgement of our excitement that made me appreciate them even more. When Mark addressed the audience, we could all feel his deep sincerity. This alchemist of funk, who makes it look so easy, was genuinely touched by our outpouring of affection.
“I want to thank y’all for coming out, we really appreciate it. When we first started out we didn’t think anyone would give two shits for our music. This is very humbling. Thank you, Montreal.”
That got us all even more riled up and when they exited the stage, the Corona began to vibrate on whole new level. Everyone stood up and howled until the musicians came back. The first to return was DJ who bowed humbly, pressing his hands together in gratitude. Then Laura sashayed onto the stage, garden party fresh in green floral chiffon, and joined him on #4 from “The Infamous Bill” for the encore.
They continued with White Gloves from “The Universe Smiles Upon You”. It is their first song ever written with lyrics and sounds like the theme song from a 70’s romantic film. We finally heard Mark’s gentle voice, sweetly accompanying his Classic Series ‘70’s Stratocaster. (He tours with only one guitar). I’m surprised they don’t sing more as Laura also has a lovely voice.
The last song was “People Everywhere” which left everyone on a high note. The crowd exited the Corona Theatre peacefully and satisfied, like how you feel after a great meal and bottle of wine or a day at the beach or whatever gets you high. Remember Khruangbin means airplane and is designed to take you to exotic places. So next time they land in your town make sure you’re on board.
Review – Annette Aghazarian
Photos – Ramy Elhoufy