I was introduced to Khruangbin via The Recital That Never Happened - the soundtrack to my summer 2014 exam period. On Friday 21st October, their sold out headline show at The Deaf Institute, Manchester, was the first time I had ever paid to see a predominantly instrumental band and they did not disappoint.
The historic venue was overflowing causing some discomfort to the masses as people squeezed past each other waiting for Khruangbin to bless the stage. They opened wonderfully with August 12, a song which typifies the myriad of influences in their music. The diversity of their influences is further illustrated by the composition of the band; Laura Lee, the bassist, has roots in psychedelic rock and dub while Mark Speers, the guitarist and apparent frontman of the trio, is influenced by music from all over the world – Jamaica, Thailand, Ethiopia amongst other countries. The drummer, Donald Johnson, also produces under the alias ‘Beanz’ as part of a hip hop production due called ‘Beans N Kornbread’ who have collaborated with artists such as Texan rapper ‘Slim Thug’.
It was intriguing to look around and witness the various ways that listeners enjoyed the music. While some, like myself, bopped their heads up and down in a fashion mostly associated with hip-hop music (due to Johnson’s drumming), others seemed more receptive to Speers’ Asian influenced guitar leads.
I usually perceive guitar solos to be a climatic addition to vocally led productions, Van Halen’s solo on Michael Jackson’s Beat It epitomising this notion. Additionally, as a big fan of lyricism, I often find myself thinking that a hot 16 would compliment most instrumental music perfectly - but that is not Khruangbin; the omission of vocals in most of their material gives the music room to breathe and truly create a unique mood allowing Speers to take centre stage and combine rehearsed melodies with some improvisation. The guitar leads sound like they tell a story with peaks and troughs in the emotional arc, a difficult skill to possess on an extremely prominent instrument in contemporary music.
The art of storytelling purely through non-vocal instruments is a skill Khruangbin possesses and they conveyed this best through their performance of A Calf Born in Winter. The performance of this particular song was preceded by a story they shared with the crowd. It was feared by the band that a calf they had developed an affinity for – the calf was named ‘Laura’ after the bassist, Lee - was slaughtered for meat. Upon revisiting the farm they found out that the calf was still alive and had given birth to 5 more calves.
The one song that incorporated vocals was White Gloves from their album The Universe Smiles Upon You. Here both Speers and Lee sang in unison on a song they wrote together, consolidating the feeling that this truly was a trio of musicians, defying distance (Lee currently lives in London whilst Speers and Johnson reside in Texas) and different musical roots.
The concluding 15 minutes featured two questionable aspects of the show. The three musicians took turns in the spotlight to display their skills on their respective instruments. This lacked dynamic range and felt like a missed opportunity to take the show to another level. Secondly, the length of Speers’ interaction with the crowd could have been shortened, giving room for one or two songs which were omitted from the setlist, namely The Recital That Never Happened, a fitting song title for the performance that was not to be. I would happily see them again to get my fix.
Words: Lehin Adenekan
Photography: Jack Kirwin