King Khan has never been in Northampton before, and he is pretty sure he doesn’t like it.
It starts even before his massive band takes the stage, when he, still in Bermuda shorts and truckers hat, harangues us to get closer for the opening act, New Hampshire-scuzz punkers Live Fast Die. “C’mon, that’s the worst thing you can do…stand in the back,” he importunes. “Don’t sit at the tables. Don’t be like that.” Muttering darkly (and inexplicably, since we’re in Massachusetts) about “people from New Hampshire,” he has us pegged as recalcitrant squares right from the beginning.
Fair enough. He comes from Montreal and lived in Europe, both wilder, crazier scenes, places where, quite possibly, women don’t stand there like they’ve “got a poker up their pussies.” We are trying, to limits of our straightened abilities, to have the kind of good time that King Khan insists on…but we may just not be capable of it; so, sorry. It’s New England. People have been trying to get us to loosen up for centuries.
The funny thing is, it just about works.
Live Fast Die blitz-bombs through fast, snotty, obscenity-larded punk songs that sound marginally better than on the one-track recorded Bandana Thrash, but still not good enough to hear the words. (Except for “fuck”; I distinctly heard the word “fuck” in pretty much every song.) They’re good though, tipping the nod to New Hampshire’s only legitimate punk, G.G. Allin, as well as the Ramones and maybe the Germs. It’s not complicated, what they do, just 4/4 brutality pushed to warp speed. The drummer bashes straight on in a lather with his tongue hanging out like Michael Jordan. The skinny lead guitarist cutting into Van Halen-style shreds between songs just to prove he can do something besides up-and-down scrubbing. Camero Werewolf, the singer, hardly even breaks stride as King Khan hands him a shot, which he downs with his strumming hand in the short break between verses. They close with the Ramones’ version of Johnny River’s “Do Ya Wanna Dance”, and, poker-in-the-ass or not, we all kind of do.
King Khan has brought an extravagantly large band with him, two drummers (one on kit, one in the corner on hand drums), two saxophonists, a trumpeter, bass, guitar, keyboards, and a girl who does nothing but go-go-dancing out in front. Fantastically lavish, his show, and, in this day of $4 gas, fantastically expensive. At one point, he asks if people will buy his band a beer, just one or two, because at $6 a pint, a full round for the band would cost $72. Imagine what it runs to feed this crew and find them places to sleep.
But still, it’s a show in a way that lots of concerts aren’t. When King Khan enters, after an extended jazzy vamp, all thunking bass and blast of horns, he’s wearing a glittery cape and mask…and why not? The first song turns out to be “Land of the Freak”, a hard-soul, funk-garage frenzy, that sets the dancer gyrating.
But not, unfortunately, the audience…or at least not enough. “You like punk rock?” says Khan, after hectoring the non-dancing audience. The band launches into a pretty good imitation of Live Fast Die’s rabid punk fury, Khan knocking himself in the head with the mic and screaming. It lasts about 30 seconds. Then it’s “I Wanna Be A Girl”, Khan’s paean to transsexuality. “You probably don’t have them here, do you?” he taunts, in the town J Mascis once called “the lesbian capital of the world,” though, in truth, ours mostly go the other way and wanna be boys.
Khan is confrontational, but as the evening wears on, it starts to have an effect. People can be coerced, it seems, into having a pretty good time. It helps that the show is so damned manic, the horn players shuffling in and out of their conga line, the skinny keyboard player abusing his instrument in every way possible—standing it up on end, turning it upside down and playing underneath and slowly banging it up against the wall. The dancer is untireable, shimmying and swaying and whirling to the beat with a permanent Mona Lisa smile on her face, and King Khan, well, you just never know what he’s going to do next.
He comes back on stage with a cobra-headed walking stick as the band swaggers into “Shivers Down My Spine”, a blues-y, organ-trilling, shaggy dog tale about death and betrayal. It ends with Khan spread-eagled on the floor, the dancer raising the cobra stick over his head and stabbing him theatrically through the heart. The scream you hear on the record? That’s a death throe.
And later, in an extended, NC-17 improvisation, Khan riffs on an encounter with his wife in which first a finger, then an arm, then two arms and then both legs and Khan himself, end up in the sexual orifice. There is a tiny halt in the proceedings as the band searches for just the right wettish, plopping sound to represent his exit—cymbals, they decide finally. And the punch line (“wakka wakka” says Khan as he delivers it), is when the wife asks “Honey, what did you do with that watch I gave you for Christmas?”
Musically the show is tight as hell, at least as good as a Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings show, with scorching versions of Supreme Genius highlights like “Burnin’ Inside”, “Welfare Bread”, “How Can I Keep You Outta Harm’s Way” and “Destroyer” (but not, sadly, “Torture”). But Sharon Jones, great as she is, never closed a show in her underwear, wearing a Darth Vader mask and a blue cape, and her keyboard player never donned a giant chicken head. Even that stiff-assed crowd in Northampton got into it.