Photo: Jackie Lee Young / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Khruangbin Light Up the Night at the Berkeley Greek Theater

Blending wide-ranging global influences and psychedelic effects, Khruangbin have pulled off the rare feat of developing a truly fresh sound.

Dead Oceans
23 September 2022

It’s a “Sunday Funday” in the People’s Republic of Berkeley on 17 July, as music fans pack the sold-out Greek Theater for a second consecutive night with Khruangbin. The trio from Houston, Texas, played here once before when they opened for Trey Anastasio’s Ghosts of the Forest in 2019, but what a difference three years can make. Khruangbin were already surging and have continued to ascend through new releases, widespread touring, and festival dates, including a national webcast appearance at the Lockn Festival in Virginia later in 2019, where Anastasio sat in with the band for a popular team-up.

The shuttering of the live music industry in 2020 could have halted some of Khruangbin’s momentum, but the band continued to release new music that has struck a chord with mainstream audiences despite or perhaps because of the trio’s eclectic influences. Mordechai added vocals to the mix, further enhancing their heady instrumental grooves. They also released the Texas Sun and Texas Moon EPs with R&B star Leon Bridges in 2020 and 2022, which broadened the band’s exposure even more. 

The retro-cool vibe in the spaghetti western style video for Texas Moon’s “B-Side” lends the band an intriguing aura, particularly with how they apparently arrive by way of a flying saucer to meet Bridges for a jam session in a Texas ghost town. The video makes the members of Khruangbin seem like celluloid heroes of the silver screen that you just want to know better. A scroll through videos on YouTube turns up a revealing biographical conversation with the band titled ”Khruangbin: Gospel/hiphop drummer, the bassplaying art girl & the cratedigger worldmusic connoisseur”, in which we learn firsthand how bassist Laura Lee, guitarist Mark Speer, and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson formed Khruangbin. 

Khruangbin Live 2
Photo: Jackie Lee Young / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Speer and Johnson speak of meeting while playing in the gospel band at St. John’s Methodist Church in Houston, the same church they note where pop star Beyonce got her start singing. Lee then relates how she was going to school for art history and working in museums when she went to a colleague’s house for lunch one day. Speer was the roommate who was watching a documentary about Afghani music when they arrived, while Lee was studying art from the region. A connection formed from that synchronistic affinity, though it would still be three more years before they would begin to collaborate musically.

Blending wide-ranging global influences including Thai funk, Middle Eastern scales, and African grooves with some disco funk, reverb-drenched psychedelia, and infectious melodies where the guitar seems to sing, Khruangbin has pulled off the rare feat of developing a truly fresh sound. Thus the trio’s growing audience draws from an array of music fans to make them one of the hottest bands on the planet in 2022. It’s a formula that record execs couldn’t dream up in a million years.

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Photo: Jackie Lee Young / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

When the band hits the stage at the Greek, there’s a surge of energy as they start playing one of their patented laid-back yet groovy instrumental tunes. Yet those expecting a full-on dance party are surprised to find a crowd that once again largely remains seated, an ongoing issue at the Greek in recent years. Those who came to get their groove on quickly realize they must descend toward the pit area, crowded though it already is. The Greek is still an excellent venue for a band like Khruangbin though, with their airy melodies generating a sonic atmosphere that makes the senses tingle under the stars and trees of Strawberry Canyon.

It’s just under 30 minutes into the show when Khruangbin crank up the energy with an up-tempo groove on “Lady and Man”, elevating the set from cool loungey psychedelia into a higher gear. Lee exudes star power charisma with some “Blue Steel” style modeling looks that suggest she’s been hanging out with Derek Zoolander before she and Speer perform some crowd-pleasing tandem moves together. This generates even more feedback from the audience as the group’s sonic aeroplane soars higher. Lee sings of going to college, where she “could have been a doctor” or “could have been a lawyer”, a sentiment that seems to strike a chord.

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Photo: Jackie Lee Young / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

“Evan Finds the Third Room” is another winner with more of an upbeat tempo that keeps the dance party going as Lee sings affirmations, while double disco ball psychedelia envelops the Greek for extra vibes. A seamless segue into “The Infamous Bill” and then “Pelota” perhaps reveals some jam-rock influence, with the band able to connect tunes to keep the energy flowing without a stop. The trio catches another hot groove on “Maria Tambien”, with Speer riffing syncopated melodies over a breakbeat from Johnson while Lee lays down some deep bass. That leads to a surf rock explosion section that gets the audience fired up again with a fun vibe. Speer asks audience members to take a picture with the band and to hold up their phones with the light on, which creates a dazzling illumination for the snapshot.

Khruangbin save some of the best for last with a hot sequence that features their hit “Time (You and I)”, a song that seems to unify the audience into feeling like it could “live forever” under this spacey funky groove. The energy feeds into a dazzling multi-dimensional jam on “People Everywhere (Still Alive)” for a big finish. There’s an increased tempo as Speer’s riffs and Johnson’s beat seem like they’re aiming to use the tone sciences to power that flying saucer from the “B-Side” video for a return to the stars. It’s been a delightful flight path with Khruangbin here at the Greek, and it will be interesting to see where the band’s airways lead next.

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Photo: Jackie Lee Young / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media