Hanni El Khatib’s “Highway Man Tour” brought him, along with touring mates, The Sundelles, to the Urban Lounge in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 13, with local space rock quintet, Max Pain and the Groovies, on the bill to open the show. It was a quiet night at the Urban Lounge when I arrived. The Groovies were finishing up sound check as I made my way past about 30 people to the bar to grab a beer and settle in a few feet behind the wood flooring on stage right.
The Groovies pull off their lo-fi space rock pretty well in their live show as their collective stage presence matches the sound, which isn’t something that a lot of psych-rock bands are able to do well. Their unique live performance would benefit if David Johnson could get more volume out of his microphone, as his unrestrained vocals were nearly inaudible behind the volume of the band. Troy Coughlin’s drumming wasn’t overpowering and kept the band moving at a good pace without sounding rushed. They definitely sound sloppier on stage than they do in the studio, but they’re a relatively young band and have only gotten better with time. The Groovies aren’t afraid to jam and don’t fall prey to the drawn out jam sessions that usually end up with people checking their watches. The five members on stage create a great atmosphere for reveling in some not-so-serious psychedelic rock music.
The Sundelles’ sound combines clean harmonies and tremolo lead guitar to create a lucid version of the Shins, but trades James Mercer’s high tenor for Sam Sundos’ passive vocals. Their live sound was good, but as performers they were boring to watch. Sundos’ feet seemed to be rooted to the floor throughout the entire set and I got the sense that they were just playing their songs to the crowd rather than performing for them. I found myself enjoying the music I was listening to, but never feeling too excited about it. Their brand of rock is tame and doesn’t attempt to break down any barriers, which is fine, but they need more energy in order to put on a performance that people are going to want to watch. The track, “Gold,” for example, was my favorite tune they played that night, and all the while I couldn’t help but feel like it would’ve sounded so much better had they upped the tempo, added a little distortion and really blasted those speakers. The Sundelles put on a decent show, but I think they need to get mean and play loud.
Hanni El Khatib came on stage with his touring band, drummer Nicky Fleming-Yaryan and guitarist/keyboardist Hayden Tobin. Together, the trio make their own brand of polished garage rock supporting Khatib’s bluesy croons ridden with microphone pre-delay, giving him that echo that the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach loves to use so much. Khatib plays without a bass guitar, instead adding another distorted guitar or organ-style keyboard to the song, creating a sharp, mid-range electric blues sound that is brought to life by his animated performance. Khatib explores the space on stage throughout the course of a song, putting real feeling into the music and making the listener believe in what’s happening on stage.
He writes full-stops into almost every single one of his songs, and it’s evident in his smile that he enjoys the dissonance created when the music cuts out completely and all that’s left for one or two seconds is amp feedback or complete silence. Later in the set, once more than a few drinks had been served, Khatib had a handful of drunks up front dancing like maniacs and the entire house invested in the music. Tobin got on the keys for a few tunes, adding a swirling sort of organ undertone that gave the tracks a great dynamic. On the drum set, Yaryan’s playing was sharp and vibrant, accentuating the loud, staccato nature of the music. There were a number of songs that I didn’t recognize from his 2011 release, Will the Guns Come Out. I can only assume they’re tunes in progress for his next release, which will be produced by Dan Auerbach.
Khatib has been met with almost immediate success in his newfound full-time music career and I’m not going to argue why. The guy knows how to write songs and he and his band mates can perform them even better. The musicians he’s touring with fully understand the music and are more than capable of performing it, which leads to a damn exciting live show. I can’t wait to hear what Khatib is able to accomplish working with Dan Auerbach.