Khruangbin (photo: Joshua Huver)
On Tuesday, November 13, Khruangbin brought a sold-out surf party to life at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz. With two albums under their belt, the band has steadily grown from obscurity into a hot topic behind the early 2018 release of their second album, Con Todo el Mundo. They spent the second half of the summer opening for Leon Bridges before undertaking their own headlining tour through mid-December.
The Houston trio combines unlikely ingredients to bring their vision to life. Blending world rhythms, Thai funk and a dreamy shimmering guitar tone that dissolves against the shore like the surf. Wholly psychedelic, even their name is a trip: khruangbin is a Thai word that translates to “airplane” or “flying machine.”
Khruangbin’s journey to selling out clubs and small theaters (like the Fox in Oakland over the previous weekend) was not quick. Guitarist Mark Speer and drummer Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson Jr. met playing in a Methodist church gospel band in 2004. Over the next three years they became close, and in 2007 Speer met Laura Lee. They bonded over an affinity for world culture, specifically Afghan music and Middle East architecture.
Still, it took two more years before Speer taught Lee how to play the bass. In 2010, the pair performed on a North American tour with Yppah and Bonobo. This experience was a turning point for the two. When they returned to Texas, they enlisted DJ to give steady backbone to their psychedelic ideas.
In Santa Cruz, Khruangbin provided an epic journey from the beginning through the end of their set. The show started out not slow, but calm. As the band picked up intensity, so did the crowd. A packed house meant a sea of people on the large dance floor of the Catalyst was in constant sway.
Super, DJ and Lee hit the stage close to 10pm opening with “Bin Bin” — a secret track at the end of the vinyl version of their debut record The Universe Smiles Upon You. They followed with the title track of 2014’s The Infamous Bill EP before landing on “August Twelve,” also from the debut.
For my first Khruangbin concert, and after trying my best to hold out on casually becoming obsessed with the music before I saw it live, I was definitely impressed from the get-go. Speer’s guitar tone and playing is so clean and focused, you’d think he was in a recording session. From the first three songs alone, my ears received tasty notes of Page, Clapton, and Hendrix. This guitarist is clearly well-practiced and born to groove, and I was hooked.
The fourth song in the set, “Como Me Quieres” was instantly recognized in the audience. The song is the lead single off of the band’s latest. Read more about it here. They stayed on Con Todo el Mundo for the slow release of “Friday Morning” before taking their first break of the evening.
Khruangbin continued bouncing between their full-length albums for the next few songs. Selections and highlights included: “Dern Kala,” where both Speer and Lee took their time playing with dips and bends, both in the knees and on their instruments; the jazzy ballad of “August 10;” the outer-space funk influenced “Mr. White;” and the band taking a shot onstage and cheersing with the audience in the middle of “Two Fish and an Elephant.” They also played “Lady and a Room” and finally “Evan Finds The Third Room” before taking a break. With every song, the urgency and pace of the music seemed to grow gradually urgent.
What followed next was a mind-glowingly good old school hip-hop and R&B medley of hits. The band touched on Dre’s “Next Episode;” ODB’s “Baby, I Got Your Money;” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation;” Warren G’s “Regulate;” Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game;” cuts from Sade, Toni Braxton, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg; and ending with “Summer Madness” from Kool and the Gang. The set ended shortly after the medley with their original track “Maria Tambien.”
For the encore, Khruangbin played a stellar three songs with full-on flashing disco balls and continuing an elegantly simple light show that kicked hard. The choices were throwbacks in the band’s catalog. They returned to The Infamous Bill EP for “The Number 4” and 2015’s stand-alone single “White Gloves” before neatly wrapping with “People Everywhere (Still Alive).”