Khruangbin Amps Up Its Houston Pride

Khruangbin Photo by Connor Fields

No place in the world Saturday night exuded more civic pride than was found on the lawn at White Oak Music Hall. Leading the pep rally for all things Houston – but especially music - was Khruangbin, the hometown band that is making waves in the music world with its funky take on music with an international accent.

The trio – guitarist Mark Speer, bassist Laura Lee and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson – has been thrilling audiences everywhere of late, playing shows in far-off locales like Indonesia, Australia and Japan, not to mention the otherworldly terrain of the stage it shared at Desert Daze with rap legends Wu-Tang Clan. While the band’s worldwide profile is soaring, last night was a moment to recall that Houston has heavily influenced the Khruangbin music our global neighbors have been enjoying so heartily of late. As Speer put it at the show’s close, Khruangbin wouldn’t be what it is without Houston.

To prove the point, the band invited a bunch of local friends to celebrate and make incredible music all night long. The show opened with DJ Sun, the local music producer and deejay whom Speer called a Houston music legend, a mentor and one of his oldest friends. The Suffers, fellow darlings of the music festival circuit, were a late add to the show. Houston music vets Charlie Perez and Will Van Horn backed the band on percussion and pedal steel, respectively. Midway through Khruangbin’s set, Speer announced a special guest, a “solid, solid Texas man,” he promised.

“Solid Texas family,” Speer continued, “Y’all make some noise for Mr. Leon Bridges.”

In an interview ahead of last night’s fun, Lee told us fans travel to Khruangbin shows out of their locale to see the special moments, those one-off instances that won’t replicate. While Khruangbin is certainly likely to share a stage again with The Suffers and Bridges (with whom, Speer said, the band has teamed for a project dropping early next year), the vibe of last night’s set won’t ever be reproduced to its exact perfection. And reader, I'm here to say that show was as close to perfect as I've seen in a minute.

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Mark Speer
Photo by Connor Fields

For one, the weather was ideal for an outdoor show. As skilled and charming and charmed as they are, the elements are still out of Khruangbin’s control (we think), so maybe the universe smiled upon the band and allowed a gorgeous evening for the show. As Suffers’ vocalist Kam Franklin said, it was nice to be at an outdoor Houston show not hampered by rain. The crowd certainly appreciated it and was primed for live music when Franklin and company hit the stage promptly at 8 o’clock.

“Fuck yeah, we in this bitch!” she exhorted ahead of the band’s song “Midtown.” Franklin was dressed in red and brought the color’s boldness to life with her vocals on favorites like the body-mover “Gwan” and new song dubbed “Nunya.” That one reminded listeners these bands live in the studio or on the road and, although they hail from a city they love wholeheartedly, it’s still a special occasion to watch them performing live here, particularly on such a beautiful, clear night. The highlight of the set was Franklin giving it her all on “Giver.” In this setting, the song’s love interest became Houston, with Franklin pleadingly promising to massage the city’s back, run her fingers through its hair and take away its pain.

“Here in the state of Texas, music is everything,” Franklin said. “It gets you through the tough times.”

There seemingly haven’t been many tough times of late for the headliner. Khruangbin loosely translates to the word “airplane” from Thai, and its been a nearly turbulence-free year for the band. Audiences everywhere are vibing to the sounds found on the group’s albums, 2014’s The Infamous Bill, its follow-up The Universe Smiles Upon You and last year’s Con Todo el Mundo.

The band opened with “Bin Bin,” a groove that set the tone for nearly two hours of music to follow. You know how sometimes in life it’s easy to slight those closest to you even as you're impressing others? Yeah, that didn’t happen last night. Right from the start, everything suggested Houston would be getting the same experience as any of the fest-goers who adore Khruangbin elsewhere. The light show was full scale and designed to enhance Khruangbin’s (mostly) instrumental music experience. Best moment? When everything went bright and shiny during “Evan Finds the Third Room.”

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Laura Lee
Photo by Connor Fields

Bridges’ appearance also suggested the H-town crowd wouldn’t be cheated. He sang a pair of songs and his silken voice over the band’s equally-lush offerings has us excited about the project they teased last night. Khruangbin’s fashion sense was on full runway display. Speer and Lee donned their trademark wigs and many of those wigs dotted the heads of audience members. Speer shined in a gold suit with black etching and Lee adorned a form-fitting body suit that was part Cleopatra from outer space, part Ace Frehley. Johnson, who holds it all down with a steady beat, was guru-like in hippy-trippy smock.

The fuel that keeps Khruangbin climbing, though, is the music. You can hear Speer’s remarkably deft playing on record, but to get the full appreciation for what he’s doing, try watching him at work sometime with a large Houston crowd. Sometimes notorious for talking too much or too loud during performances, last night’s gathering was silenced by the band’s adeptness. Even when “Dern Kala,” a fan favorite, was plagued by a crackling speaker, the audience didn’t seem to mind, so attuned to what Khruangbin was doing were they.

That issue was quickly resolved so listeners could better focus on tracks like “Mr. White,” “Two Fish and an Elephant,” “August 10” and “Lady and Man.” All the music was offered earnestly, but also with a high degree of fun. Lee’s signature move is a hip sway that morphs into a knee bend, which I will now dub the “Khruang-bend,” for posterity. When she did it, especially when Speer joined in, the crowd approved mightily. At some point, Speer and Lee joined on percussion. They clanked drumsticks against bottles to add to the rhythm. I might be mistaken, but from where I stood it appeared Lee was tap-tap-tapping at a Topo Chico bottle while Speer played a bottle of Tito’s Vodka. If so, that was another amusing nod to all things local from a band that has so much international shine.

The set ended strongly, with Khruangbin performing an instrumental medley of rap hits, with the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” and Fat Pat’s “Tops Drop” woven in, naturally. Curiously, the medley included Spandau Ballet’s 1980s hit “True,” and the crowd eagerly added group vocals to this one. The show proper ended with “Maria También,” the hit off the last record, and that one included an interspersion of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” with Lee on vocals. Then it was back to “Maria” and the shift in tones, plus the Houston pride gave me that scalp-tingle called ASMR.

The night ended with Lee making a wardrobe change and the band staying the course, with encore tunes “White Gloves,” “Friday Morning” and “People Everywhere (Still Alive).” That final song reminded us all there are people everywhere and a lot of them love Khruangbin. But only some of us can claim them as a band from our city and that made an evening of fun, superior music something we could all be proud to be a part of.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.