Hanni El Khatib at The Chapel, by Ria Burman

Hanni el Khatib (photo: Ria Burman)

Words by Annie Bacon

It’s been said that the term ‘Americana’ is a euphemism for “I don’t know what else to call this.” Traditionally applied to acoustic music, it is essentially music that pokes up between the cracks of multiple genres born around this vast country. Listening to Hanni El Khatib’s raw and gritty version of blues rock last night at The Chapel, I couldn’t help but think “what’s more Americana than this?”

Khatib is the son of immigrants, born himself right here in SF. “Not Millbrae or Mill Valley or wherever else people pretend to be from SF. I’m from right here.” (Cue shouts of “That’s my cousin!” from the balcony.) His music is rock and roll forged in the gut, tied together with a kind of urban poetry. If the old auto plants in Detroit could have made their own music, I bet it would have sounded like this. It contains the multitudes of American musical influences: blues, rock, punk, R&B, surf, garage, hip-hop. There was even one song, “Paralyzed,” that dropped a disco beat (Kudos to the lighting designer who obliged a strong disco-ball light show.) What makes it special is the heart El Khatib and his band infuse in each song. They clearly care about and enjoy the music they are making.

Opening the set with the first two tracks off his recently-released mega-album Savage Time, El Khatib came out strong and pounding. A video screen behind the band showed throngs of motorcycles (then humans) racing, followed by ten thousand people doing tai chi. All the images swirled and distorted as if through the psychedelic lens of an oncoming high. Fitting, then, that the first lines sung out were “I was high as fuck / I was high as fuck / I was high as fuck / but hear me out.”

The band played many of the tracks off Savage Times, with nods to older tunes such as the band’s cover of “You Rascal You” (off 2011’s Will The Guns Come Out), which after being used in a TV ad for a movie earned the band over a million YouTube views and more than 4 million streams. They ripped through 18 tunes in a little over an hour.

The crowd was all in — not a head unmoving — and full of love for this band. One couple I stood next to had seen him three times. Louis from Montreal had come to SF specifically for this show and to commemorate the adventure got a tattoo three days ago of El Khatib’s Head in the Dirt album cover, in which a beautiful ghostly woman embraces a skeletal grim reaper of sorts. “We love you Hanni!” someone shouted halfway through the set. Another fan — a large Harley-looking dude — handed him a rose and baby’s breath bouquet at the start of the two song encore (perhaps a reference to El Khatib’s song “Til Your Rose Comes Home”?) El Khatib, graciously, attached the flowers to his mic stand and rocked on.

And this is emblematic of the set to me — so unbelievably human and containing the roses and the rust of America. Politically charged, family-proud, hard-rocking Hanni El Khatib is an Americana rock star for the modern era.

The Buttertones — based, like El Khatib, out of Los Angeles and also on the Innovative Leisure label — laid down main support for the show. This band had fire! Their set was impossible to predict, with each new corner of a song twisting and turning. A standout in this overall incredibly impressive crew was drummer Modesto ‘Cobi’ Cobiån, both for his spectacular drumming and his fitted white turtleneck with long black hair dancing in gorgeous, headbanging swirls. From the second the band took the stage, they owned it — heads up, shoulders squared to the audience, all dressed to impress (which they did this writer) and rubber-legged (“Jailhouse Rock” style) from the get-go. This is a band that knows the power of entertainment. Their brand of rock and roll was precise and nasty, and they whipped parts of the crowd into a moshing frenzy as the saxophone drilled another rugged trill into the air. It’s something like ska surf rockabilly that threatens to smash the status quo with a smile. These folks are headed back to SF on March 29 to play Bottom of the Hill. If you want to lose yourself in a wild and happy dance party, I think you need to be there.

The best thing I can say about opening band, The Molochs, is that their recorded music seems to be much more interesting than their live show. The band was listless, and I was bored after a few songs. They also seemed to pay no attention to their own songs when it came to musical key, arrangements, and other technical notes when they created their set list — song after song sounded exactly the same, like an uninspired Violent Femmes mixed with The Monkeys burnt out. Lead singer/songwriter Lucas Fitzsimmons even drolly asked the crowd, “Do you like us or what?”

In doing research for this write-up I found a lot more to like in their recordings, like “No More Crying”. I hope the band takes some notes from their fellow Innovative Leisure label-mates in the importance of performance. Without knowing how to share their musical message, the band seems more like a “scene band” divorced from its scene.

Aside from this slow (and quite late) start, this was another great Noise Pop evening, the Chapel’s gorgeous architecture inspiring the crowd, and two of three bands giving their whole selves (and more) to us. We exited the venue to the sight and smell of fresh rain on the pavement, senses alert and awakened. Ready to take on the world.

Annie Bacon is a musician (her life) and writer (her obsession) in San Francisco. She loves shouting out amazing local bands and finding new music (of any genre) that is emotionally moving or has depth. She also writes for The SF Critic, has her own band, and is raising a little drummer kid.