Hanni El Khatib and Bass Drum of Death came rumbling in from Portland Saturday night for their third stop on a US tour. Both bands are signees aboard one of America's best, if not most tastefully curated, labels Innovative Leisure Records (think Burger Records sophisticated older cousin, and Stone’s Throws unruly little sister).
Bass Drum of Death is a trio whose noise is already so deadly that they dare not bring a bass guitar on stage. Instead they rock two guitarists and a drummer to produce their garage rock sound. I had no idea Seattle and Bass Drum of Death had a relationship, but that became readily apparent when a larger than average crowd showed up to see them play as the opener Saturday night. The crowd could be heard singing along during both band's performances.
Being a Hanni El Khatib fan has payed off in joyful listening through the years, from his initial effort Bullfighters Heart, up through 2011's Will the Guns Come Out, but to be honest I bristled with preemptive criticism when I heard that Dan Auerbach (Black Keys) would be producing his latest Head in the Dirt. My instinctual fear was that Auerbach would do to HEK what he had done to his own band, which was to do away with the wonderfully De Stijl design of drums/guitar/voice and add a whole backing band, which he did. To my surprise, Hanni’s brand of rocking R&B has survived, and even thrived in that structure. His time with a master of pentatonic phrasing like Auerbach (and before that touring with Florence and the Machine) has given teeth to the lead guitar fills between his driving chord structures.
I’m still a bit attached to the Hanni El Khatib of days of old, the creative director wandering into playing music at the behest of skating buddy (and indie music maven) Marc Bianchi (Her Space Holiday)—Khatib’s song “I Know It’s Bad For Me” is a rare acoustic gem no self-respecting collector can go without—but it’s with that initial self-loathing artistic grace that Hanni has grown into a beast to behold. With a full band—complete with Hayden Tobin on Rhodes piano and Gibson SG, bass shredder Daniel Michicoff (Tijuana Panthers), and Ron Marinelli (what happened to Nicky?) on drums—Hanni and crew tore through Head in the Dirt, and some of his Will the Guns Come Out , performing rousing versions of Louis Armstrong/Sam Theard’s "You Rascal You" and his own "Loved One."
The hotter the Barboza got the better the band played. They held it down while Hanni bounced around the stage, working up a sweat on newer songs like “Pay No Mind” and “Nobody Move.” Hanni El Khatib’s songwriting epitomizes the greasy, sleazy cool of ’70s pulp cinema, tops it with shockingly fuzzy electric guitar, and emulsifies it with bubblegum punk rhythms, serving up witty American rock n’ roll that caused everyone inside the warm dark confines of Barboza to strut. Surely we were all also encouraged by the fact that every man in the band is so beautiful that the sweatier they get, the better they look.
Highlights of the night were definitely an amped up (didn’t think that was possible) version of “Fuck It You Win” —which makes amazing use of awkward silence between fuzzy punch-the-floor chords to build tension—and a cover of The Cramps' “Human Fly,” which was the B-side to his "Roach Cock" single.
Hanni El Khatib
Hanni’s material from Head in the Dirt is better than expected; penning perfect pop rock singles like “Penny” is not easy (though they sound so simple) and his music continues to sting when you come into contact with its knife edge punk rock and blues (like in “Family”). It was an early show so the obligatory encore was a single song: a version of “House on Fire” that saw Hanni start solo, to be joined by the band midway through.