The last time I saw King Khan play, it was with his duo act, the King Khan and BBQ Show " BBQ being the code name for Mark Sultan, Khan's former bandmate from the notorious Montreal garage-punk band the Spaceshits, who were at one point legendary for antics like onstage food fights and similar middle-school violence. Before the set, Khan lurched around the tiny Circle Bar in a mafioso-style tracksuit. By the time the show began, he had changed into a stretchy gold-sequined, mini-dress not unlike the uniforms worn by members of high-school dance teams at Mardi Gras parades. By the middle of the set, it had hiked up around his hips to the point where everyone in the room was aware that the dress was the only thing he was wearing. And in case anyone had missed that fact, for the last few songs, he pressed his exposed member against his guitar strings for a whanging, dissonant, semi-psychedelic effect. Then, as I willed myself to be invisible, he galloped up and down the length of the bar creating strange found-sounds by rubbing the guitar against everything in his path: barstools, the jukebox, fans. Finally, he made a little tent out of cocktail napkins and set them on fire. The bartender spoke harshly to him. He ended the set. The fire was extinguished. The Circle Bar reeked of spilled bourbon, smoke, sweat and carbon. The bartender hugged Khan and bought him a drink. It was awesome.
Khan's loose-cannon stage persona " like a violent, semi-nude flaming tornado " tends to be what he's recognized for, at least on the front end. (Allegedly, the Spaceshits were banned from most club venues in Montreal.) Under the hallucinatory ranting and borderline pyromaniac aggression, though, is a wealth of musical wizardry for which fans willingly put themselves in the line of fire.
Khan was born in Montreal, to immigrant parents from India with both musical and wild-card genetics. 'My great grandfather was the Johnny Thunders of the sitar. He played but never recorded anything and became a serious opium addict. My father tried to play sitar but chose the fast life over that and wound up down and out and addicted to cocaine. My mother can play harp like Bob Dylan," he said in a press release.
His post-Spaceshits career was something musically picaresque. When the band toured Europe in 1999, Khan decided not to return to Canada or the United States. (Allegedly, he'd spent some time living on a Mohawk Indian reservation in the States. He's rumored to be an active voodoo practitioner. There also is a story about Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead appearing on a King Khan and BBQ album. The mythology abounds.) He set up expat camp in Berlin, where he met drummer Ron Streeter, whose touring résumé includes stints behind the kit for the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder. With Streeter supplying classic rhythms, the former thrashing Tasmanian devil of garage-punk assembled the Sensational Shrines, a 10-piece big band that played vintage, fiery soul music like it was 1969.
The Shrines recorded their first full-length album Three Hairs and You're Mine with producer Liam Watson (of White Stripes fame) at Toe Rag Studios in London. The band followed it with two more albums that veered between psychedelic rock, spaghetti-Western spookiness and hot-popcorn soul. Now signed to the Vice label along with sometime-collaborators the Black Lips, the Shrines just dropped a retrospective (The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines) of choice cuts that lay out, as much as anything can, the essence of the project. He's a perfect mimic of that era, as with the '60s pop gem 'Welfare Bread" and the ominous, Tarheel Slim-style 'Shivers Down My Spine." But he bends and damages the music so slyly with punk glee, dirty words and sick subject matter that the end result is something approximating vintage R&B funneled through French-Canadian voodoo, Berlin cool and trash-talking garage-punk toxins and then steeped in the on-point energy of '60s and '70s-style American soul. The Shrines play One Eyed Jacks Saturday. Plenty of room is available in the back for the timid.
- King Khan and the Shrines whip up a frenzy of garage-punk, voodoo and American soul.