There may be better bands than King Khan and the Shrines: bands with calculatingly unparalleled prowess, capable of bloodless technical precision. But King Khan and the Shrines aren’t interested in that fancy-pants conservatory graduate stuff. Their playing is expert, but balances right on the edge of chaos. Should-be classics like “(How Can I Keep You) Outta Harm’s Way” and the S&M-is-fun “Torture” crank out a sound that answers the (perhaps unasked) question: “What would Iggy and the Stooges sound like with a B3 organ and horn section?”
With four albums of new material released since 2001, the Shrines have built an impressive catalog of music. But until recently, locating any of it was tough for American fans. That’s being remedied. In 2008 Vice Records issued The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines, a compilation of some of the group’s finest recorded moments. In April, Vice will reissue What Is!?, a 2007 set that successfully translates their blistering live act to a studio setting.
The Shrines’ approach isn’t as extramusical as that of Vice label mates the Black Lips. On a recent swing through India, the Black Lips were up to their usual antics (mooning the crowd, spitting in the air and swallowing the phlegmy gob), resulting in that group being effectively run out of the country. Tellingly, they sought refuge with a kindred spirit at the home of King Khan.
But while both the Black Lips and Shrines draw from the same deep well of inspiration, the Shrines apply greater emphasis to the musical side of the equation. Their style—Khan himself suggests “Sun Ra meets George Clinton,” but it’s perhaps better described as “James Brown meets the Sonics”—combines the raucous, direct approach of garage punk with the exuberant, high-octane charge of soul, washed down with a dose of psychedelia.
Khan and his cohorts go where the action is (he notes that “in Spain, people go ape-shit right from the beginning of the show”). And Asheville is becoming a regular destination for the musicians. Last November Khan played the Grey Eagle as half of the duo The King Khan and BBQ Show, a punk-garage-doowop project with guitarist Mark Sultan.
Onstage, KK&TS are a thing to behold. Through their hook-filled tunes and wild presentation, King Khan and the Shrines are the embodiment of rock’n’roll spirit.
Khan’s underrated bandmates—many of whom share his predilection for winkingly clever noms de rock like Ben Ra and Sam Francisco—boast fine musical pedigrees, having worked with artists like Curtis Mayfield and Ike & Tina Turner. In addition to the standard guitar-bass-drums lineup, the large group features a horn section, an organist and a cheerleader called Bamboorella. Her official bio claims that she “traded a life of crime, sex and drugs for a life of rock’n’roll, sex and drugs.” With her glittery mini-dress, high boots and pom-poms, this lovely lady has the job of helping whip the crowd into a frenzy. While she’s an essential part of the show, hers isn’t the toughest job in the world: audiences worldwide respond enthusiastically to the sights and sounds of King Khan and the Shrines.
Fronting it all is the irrepressible, inimitable King Khan. During performances, Khan sometimes leaves the stage, descending into the throngs of concertgoers. Followed by one or two of his fellow musicians, Khan approaches dozens of audience members, greeting them one-by-one namaste-style: he makes eye contact, places his hands together in prayer-fashion, and bows regally.
Or he may do none of that. You just never know. Maybe he’ll appear onstage in crown and cape, fronting the hard-charging Shrines while singing and flailing away at his guitar. Maybe he’ll grab the mic stand and kneel toward the crowd, a modern-day Micky Dolenz channeling James Brown. His style is a grab bag of many things, owing in part to his (and the group’s) international vantage point: Khan lives in Berlin (home base for the Shrines), was born in Montréal and is the child of Indian immigrants. Perhaps half-jokingly, he claims his own musical pedigree: “My great grandfather was the Johnny Thunders of the sitar.”
Amid all that, Khan doesn’t see what they’re doing as all that unique: “We’re carrying on the tradition of wild rock’n’roll.”
Bill Kopp is an Asheville-based music journalist whose features and reviews can be found at www.musoscribe.com.
who: King Khan and the Shrines
where: The Orange Peel
when: Thursday, March 12 (9 p.m. $12 advance, $14 doors. www.theorangepeel.net)