There hasn’t been a band as unique as Khruangbin striding across the music landscape in some time. With a sonic wave that draws in disparate elements of Thai funk, classic soul, dub, hip-hop, Afghan music, psychedelia and pretty much any other sound that strikes their fancy, the Houston trio has found a huge global audience through a combination of hard roadwork and being really, really good at what they do. So it was with no small pleasure that we welcomed the group to the ACL stage for their first taping, which we streamed live around the world.
Interestingly, Khruangbin presented a seeming career retrospective, starting with some of their earliest work before heading to tracks from last year’s critically acclaimed LP Mordechai. After Terry Lickona’s introduction, the trio took the stage with bassist Laura Lee resplendent in silver, guitarist Mark Speer casually cool in white with colored accents, and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson, Jr. in his usual black cape. The group began almost gently with “The No. 3,” from their 2014 10-inch EP The Infamous Bill, a song that serves as an introduction to the Khruangbin aesthetic: reverb-heavy psychedelic guitar, simple but singular bass grooves, and DJ’s steady-as-a-statue drum rhythms. (One live stream viewer playfully noted, “Metronomes use DJ to keep time.”) It’s a vision both minimalist in arrangement and maximumalist in musicality. The band continue to pull from Bill for the next two songs, the groovy psych funk of “The No. 4” (a reworking of a song from their very first cassette EP) and the surf-inflected soul of the title track. The band then visited their debut album The Universe Smiles Upon You, first with the effortlessly funky, “disco country” (according to a live stream watcher) “People Everywhere (Still Alive),” a song that highlights the sly contrast between Lee’s funky strut and Speer’s laidback stoicism. “Still alive,” Lee repeated into the mic as an affirmation, adding the aside “after 2020.” Khruangbin stuck with the same record for “White Gloves,” a smouldering, starkly pretty near-ballad that would melt an ice cap. “Zionsville” followed, like an easy listening classic played by the hippest musicians in H-Town, as prelude to “August 12,” a clever blend of dub, spaghetti western soundtrack music, psychedelic funk and proto-punk.
With that, Khruangbin moved to “Friday Morning,” an acid soul ballad from their breakthrough LP Con Todo El Mundo that shifts from close harmony vocals to an epic guitar solo. With that brief stop, it was on to Mordechai, their most lauded and successful record so far. The minimal lyrics of “First Class” acted almost as another instrument to the wah-wah soaked tune, shimmering like the sun rising over the clouds. Lee’s bass took the lead for “Father Bird, Mother Bird,” a surprisingly brief but melodically languorous groover. The pace picked up considerably for the catchy Latin rock of “Pelota,” which garnered the biggest round of applause yet. The trio then went into the particularly mesmerizing, genre-defiant “Shida,” all reverbed guitar licks, DJ’s rocksteady rhythms and Lee’s enigmatic vocal interjections. The band closed the set with “So We Won’t Forget,” a disco-laced pop song that kept to the Khruangbinic virtues while saluting the good times the music brought them and the audience. With that the band quit the stage to enthusiastic applause, every clap of which they earned. It was an amazing set unlike anything else on our stage, and we can’t wait for you see it when it airs November 6 on your local PBS station.