Not every concert has a defining moment. Khruangbin's performance at the Ogden Theatre on Saturday, December 15, did. It happened toward the end of the headlining set, as the Thai-funk-soul trio from Houston worked through a psychedelic medley of covers, mostly smooth reworkings of classic hip-hop anthems — Dr. Dre's “Nuthin' but a G' Thang,” A Tribe Called Quest's “Electric Relaxation,” Warren G's “Regulate,” Ice Cube's “Today Was a Good Day.” The crowd whooped with recognition each time Khruangbin guitarist Mark Speer rang out the next melody. And the sold-out theater swooned when that next melody became Chris Isaak's “Wicked Game,” then grooved when Khruangbin began riffing off of Kool & the Gang's “Summer Madness,” (aka the sample track behind Digable Planets' “Jimmi Diggin Cats”).
The intensity behind that riff built as bassist Laura Lee, looking objectively badass as she swished her shiny, black straight-cut bangs back and forth over a red tank top and ’70s-styled flaring pants, went to the middle of the stage to join Speer, who was a whole aesthetic in himself, sporting bangs and hair even longer than Lee's, a beard and fu-manchu-style mustache and a shimmering steel-grey tuxedo. (Drummer Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson Jr. wore what looked like a silver dashiki, or some kind of armor plating suited to the royal court of an alien kingdom. He did not smile or change his expression the entire concert; he just grooved, man.)
So as they're getting toward the end of this medley, there's Laura Lee and Mark Speer, playing faster and faster as they lean their backs against one another center stage.
Lee suddenly decides to arch her upper body further back, still plucking her bass, and whispers something into Speer's ear, a private secret shared on stage — except that the entire theater is privy to the outcome: Both musicians tilt their heads back and laugh.
“Whaaaat...? There's no way they're that cool,” a friend of mine said, laughing herself. “That had to be rehearsed, right?”
But it was cool. And that’s all that mattered.
Seeing Khruangbin live is like riding shotgun in Joan Didion’s cigarette-smoke-filled Corvette. It’s like getting your portrait painted by Andy Warhol, or sitting on a private beach with the hippest people you could root out of the best underground art scenes in major cities across the world. In other words, the whole experience is almost embarrassingly cool. Khruangbin’s blends of style — Thai surf, bossa nova, salsa, 1960s psychedelia — combined with the sheer confidence of the musicians' presence almost seems like a put on, except that as you spend more time with Khruangbin, it ends up coming across as genuine.
“The laugh,” as I came to think of that quintessentially cool moment, may have happened during covers of other groups' music, but the rest of the concert showcased Khruangbin's (mostly instrumental) music from the trio's Southeast Asian-influenced 2015 record, The Universe Smiles Upon You, and this year's more Latin-tinged Con Todo el Mundo. The thing that struck me most when seeing Khruangbin live, as compared to listening to its recordings, is just how tight the band is. With so many tempo and key changes, the group's music presents a virtual minefield of opportunities to screw up, but Speer, especially, commands his instrument like it’s hard-wired to his cortex. (Note: The Marías, who opened, were also excellent. Read Westword's recent interview with the band about its “love letter” campaign).
“This is our last show of 2018,” Speer told the crowd at the Ogden before profusely thanking us for capstoning Khruangbin's year. (The year included another headlining show in April at the Bluebird Theater.) And if you happened to miss the band in 2018, don’t worry: Khruangbin will be back in Colorado before you know it, opening for Vulfpeck at Red Rocks on May 9. (By the way, kudos to Vulfpeck — or whatever corporate hustler they work with — for securing such good openers; Kamasi Washington opened for them in 2018 at Red Rocks.)
As Khruangbin’s show wrapped up on Saturday and the packed theater let out onto Colfax Avenue, my friends and I brought up “the laugh” again. After some debate, we eventually came to a consensus: We didn’t think it was rehearsed.
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