On first impression, Berkeley-based rock and rollers, the Morning Benders come across as contestants in a high school Battle of the Bands competition. Their look (if they have one) is t-shirts and jeans. This laissez-faire approach to fashion is matched by a sheepish, naïve, and quirky approach to playing. On the catchy cut “Waiting for a War”, the organist pounded out a punchy beat while bent at the waist, nearly parallel with the stage, as if he were trying to sink into his instrument. Bassist, Tim Or, looked like a frightened rabbit. And lead singer, Chris Chu, stood as the ringleader of this band of boy scouts, cracking jokes and urging the crowd to dance.
Behind their innocent doe-eyed veneer, the Morning Benders managed to produce rather interesting pop music that was both sunny and breezy. Their sound borrows from fellow Californians the Beach Boys and everyone’s favorite British invaders, The Kinks. They were a hit with the screaming teens down front, but their pop punch was more a blast of sunny delight than a shot of spirited booze.
Unfortunately, their charm was immediately forgotten once the Kooks hit the stage and proceeded to prove what a rock performance should really entail. Lead singer, front man, and rock and roll roustabout Luke Pritchard immediately led his mates through the rifftastic bouncy and punchy rhythms of their new single, “Always Where I Need to Be”. Big guitars plus a “do-de-do” sing-along multiplied by an infectious beat equals a pop gem. How ballsy to open the show with such a recognizable hit. I would have expected them to save such a stellar tune for later in the evening. Dishing out the unexpected proves just how mad the Kooks are for the rock and the roll. They are going to bring the noise and we, the audience, had better be ready. From the very first note, Pritchard stalked the stage, strutting and flaunting his rocker’s pose, yet not once did his act feel like a put on.
The Kooks, however, are a little more than the Luke Pritchard show as lead guitarist Hugh Harris is indispensable to their sound. His guitar playing is simultaneously stinging and sublime. Harris can burn a blistering solo as easily as he strums a buoyant, poppy riff. The Kooks’ memorable sound, all swizzle and fizz, relies as much on the jangle of Harris’s six-string as much as Pritchard’s unique, boyish croon. A tune like “Ooh La” shimmered with a pop shine of Kinksian splendor tempered with a Small Faces swirl. Please do not assume, though, that because of these reference points, the Kooks are backward glancing nostalgia mongers. Rather, place them as purveyors of timeless music, stuck firmly in the continuum of British rock performers such as Donovan, the aforementioned Kinks, the Stones, and the Yardbirds.
The sold out audience rallied and roared along with each tune, especially the bouncy pop and acoustic strum of the catchier numbers like “She Moves in Her Own Way”, which is an instant classic. Screams and shouts greeted Pritchard’s every move, step, hip swivel, and gyration. Though not possessed of glamour boy looks, Pritchard’s stage presence was undeniably captivating. He taunted the audience, demanding that it get up, get on up. Pritchard thrived on the crowd’s enthusiasm. He seemingly needed the communal chorus almost as much as we needed his rock and roll sermon.
There was nary a misstep all night; even the hushed and poignant confessional ballad “One Last Time” managed to cut through the jibber-jabber and nattering of the unseasoned concertgoers who turned out only for the FM radio hits.
Although the Kooks have only two records to their name and seem barely past the age of shaving, they have carved out a sound that’s mature, classic, and beyond any specific era. Some rock music bears the unmistakable date stamp of its inception, but the Kooks’ tunes transcend their sphere of influence. Case in point: the bluesy swagger and shake of “Do You Wanna”. This track could be a nasty, British blues freak out ala Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, or the agitato dance-rock of Franz Ferdinand. What the song really is, as exemplified by its live translation, is a haunting call to arms, a rallying cry in the night; the previously proffered come on.
I specifically came into this show having not listened to any of the Kooks’ new album Konk, wanting to experience the new tracks with fresh ears. So often we rock critics step into the arena with too much information, too many expectations. I wanted to do my best to try and create a tabula rasa. How much more fun is it to hear a band for the first time? Imagine the thrill of letting tunes sneak up on you and grab you. Tonight, with their new tunes in tow, the Kooks won me over. Judging by the audience’s spirited reaction, I was certainly not alone.