By Kathryn Pinto
Hanni El Khatib has been kicking around LA for a couple of years now and even as he’s graduated to touring and playing larger better sounding rooms I hadn’t yet seen him play live. Spurred on by the excitement writing about him for our RFSL ticket giveaway I had to get myself to his show at the El Rey Friday night. I missed local favorites Tijuana Panthers, but saw a frenetic set from Bass Drum of Death out of Oxford, Mississippi, a town known for John Grisham, William Faulkner, a campus desegregation enforced by federal marshals, but also Fat Possum Records (Youth Lagoon, Yuck). Bass Drum of Death proved to be loud and heavy and sweaty with engaging melodic lines that were catchy in spite of themselves. The three piece played loud, hard rock to a whole mess of stoked kids in the mosh pit. El Rey security had to post their biggest guard on stage to stop the stage divers. In short, an excellent set from some guys you should definitely check out.
Hanni El Khatib has a studied raggedness to him. His press bio will tell you that he arrived in Los Angeles a skate boarder with a junker of a guitar, but if that myth is not apocryphal, it describes a time in the so distant past that it is no longer sheds much light. El Khatib owns the stage and he looks good doing it. A couple songs into his set when signs of show glow began to appear I made the note “Oh yes, I would definitely take a sweaty hug from this guy.” A couple of girls looking like finalists in a Bethany Cosentino look-alike contest took it a step further, passing small crumpled papers to the man, that one imagines were scrawled with cell phone digits.
Three things stand out from the show: El Khatib’s blues meets Eddie Van Halen guitar, how good, how singularly funktacular the bass man was, and the art direction--art directedness--of the whole enterprise. Spitballing influences: garage rock, skateboarding, punk rock, 1960’s R & B, Wall of Sound, cholo rockabilly. The sound is rough, but it swings. He is where calaveras meet The Misfits. He played “Dead Wrong” from Will the Guns Come Out (2011), its handclaps and wawa vocals straight out of a Phil Spector arrangement. The band takes their aesthetic to the edge of falling apart, but never goes that far. It’s the sonic equivalent of dark jeans and roper boots, that never get grease or paint on them and never get abraded and abused the way they do when you wear them as work clothes. El Khatib is a stylist—he made career on cover song for a commercial. This band knows what sounds good, too. It’s a sound the keeps its the rough edges without ever going off the rails. El Khatib evokes punk or rockabilly or Mussel Shoals, but it’s his own amalgamation of those sounds. It hits a mark near Black Keys and the White Stripes, but also Los Angeles’ Red Cortez who seem to have unknowingly passed him a much funkier baton. On “Human Fly,” a Cramps cover, he remained true to the bass line and the minimal arrangement of the original, but gives the vocals and guitar his own sexy swagger.
The show was the last of the tour, a homecoming show and a Friday night—a just got paid, gonna get dressed up and go out kind of a night. For some of the audience a show is just a show, but El Khatib played this set for the fans who gave up two weeks of coffee to buy a ticket. The man knows how to put on a show, to build anticipation and suspense from song to song. Playing “Pay No Mind," he used his vocals as a percussive instrument. It plays like a playground chant, a Double Dutch jump rope song, a “Hollaback Girl.” It’s a sing along, dance along Friday night song. The show was compelling--the music, the energy and the crowd--people bouncing, dancing and crowdsurfing. El Khatib played an encore that finished right up to the El Rey's sound curfew, leaving everyone in the audience wanting more.