King Khan and the Shrines

Friday, May 15, Bottom Lounge, Chicago

With apologies to Lester: you would have loved this show.

Chillun, let me tell you the story of how an honest-to-God Rock & Roll band mysteriously showed up in Chicago one rainy night.  What's that?  What do you mean "what's Rock & Roll?"  Am I that old already?  Well, I might as well start there.  Most people these days wouldn't know Rock & Roll if it duck-walked across their kitchen table.

Nigh on 60 years ago, the teenagers started to tune in a new sound.  It was faster than anything else on the wireless - that's radio, boys and girls.  It was so raw you didn't really listen to it; you eavesdropped on it.  And boy, could you dance to it.  Every Saturday night there'd be three, four parties going on, mostly in places you didn't want your parents to know you'd been.  Black kids, white kids, they'd all be cutting it together -- well, not with each other, mostly, but next to each other, which was about as together as it got in 1954.  Anyway, kids flipped over this new music, and they had a name for it: Rhythm and Blues.  Rhythm and Blues stuck when the record companies woke up and realized they couldn't call them "race records" anymore.

What?  You said you thought this was about Rock & Roll?  You don't know from rock & roll until you've heard Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Little Walter... these guys took the old blues and jumped it - clamped wires on its fingers and juiced it.  That's what started them screaming.  That was the sound that kids snuck out and risked all sorts of trouble to hear.  It was all about the trouble.  They knew it was only a matter of time before they got permanently grounded.  So they called the music Rock & Roll to confuse their parents, maybe buy a couple more Saturday nights before Mom & Dad got wise and brought the hammer down.

Once the grounding happened and these kids were stuck in their rooms for weeks on end to "think about what they'd done," they started trying to figure out where that electric surge in the music came from.  While all the jazz heads were trying get that swing, these kids were trying to make the music roll.  Like thousands of Ben Franklins, they tied keys to their guitar strings and chased thunderstorms, waiting for lightning to strike. 

Some of these kids asked nicely enough so that their parents let them go out to the garage and even invite a few of their friends over.  They started bands playing the best Rhythm and Blues they could muster, and drew an audience of the family cat and a few crickets.  Every so often they'd hit the groove and the music became huge.  This was some of the best music ever made, and most of it was never put on a record, never hit the airwaves, didn't even show up to the battle of the bands.  I'll tell you what, though -  I got a friend that studies insects, and he'll swear to God that if you compare the chirps from 1950 to 1959, the song changes; the crickets haven't been the same since.

Before long, the Rock & Rollers went the way of the alchemists.  They gave up on finding the roll, and started making just rock.  The musicians would stand up on stage like marble statues, thinking they were Greek gods, hoping if they turned it up loud enough people wouldn't listen too closely to the music.  From then on, your average rocker couldn't care less for rhythm or blues.

The roll went underground.  Oh, it'd poke its head back out every now and then - when Stevie Wonder sang, or when James Brown danced, or when Afrika Bambaata spun the breakbeats.  But even Bam's dancefloor revolution is 20 years gone.  The few of us who still cared thought that Rhythm and Blues had given up the ghost.

So when word started getting around that a real Rock & Roll band was going to be playing in Chicago, most of us thought it was a cruel joke.  I broke down and got a ticket, because in the end, if there was a Rock & Roll band still around and I missed it, I don't know if I could live with myself.  I set out for a west side club which stood in the graveyard of the now-forgotten jukes where Magic Sam and Otis Rush cut their teeth.  Shoulder-to-shoulder with about 300 other curiosity seekers, I was staring at my watch and preparing an escape route in case  I'd been bamboozled by some two-bit concert promoter.

The band that took the stage must have walked straight out of a garage - a gaggle of peppy youths picking up guitars, drumsticks, saxophones, keyboards, even a dancer with platinum blond hair and black pom pons (must have been a big garage).

The hoodoo man that strode to the microphone wore a feathered headdress, gold cape, snow leopard jacket, and a necklace made of sharks teeth.  The carved staff left no doubt that this was King Khan, the second coming of Little Richard.  Someday I'll explain to you kiddies about Little Richard.  Yes, it'll take a whole day - quit yer whining.

From the first note, it was clear this was the real deal.  The drummers - both of 'em - laid down the groove, with the electic organ bouncing over it and the saxes leaping in and out.  Halfway through the first song, the whole front line of the band started dancing together - shuffle to the right, shuffle to the left.  The music wouldn't stand still.

And the lyrics.  The lyrics!  Some of the heaviest you've ever heard, words that  laid bare the depths of the hidden soul of rock & roll.  Like these:

AHH-AHH-AHH-AHH-AHH-AHHH

BUBUBUBUBUBUBUBUBU

WOOO-HU-UH-HU-HU-AH

and most of all

AAAAAAGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!

Dig it.

When they wanted to kick the rhythm into high gear, half the band put down their instruments and started shaking jangle sticks and maracas.  They'd start jumping up and down while the horn players pushed their bells deeper into their microphones.  One at a time, audience members snuck onstage with the band to dance.

"Do you want to be reborn now?" Khan asked the crowd.  "Yah Yah!" came the reply, and before we knew it, we were in the middle of a gospel church service.  The electric organ held us in the spirit while Khan started preaching.

"I went to see my baby last night!"

"Yah Yah!" we shouted, hanging on every juicy, leg-spreading detail.

"I put my hand inside"

WHAAM!  The sound of all the instruments hitting at the same time.

"I put my head inside"

WHAAM!

"I put my leg inside"

WHAAM!

"Put yourself inside that darkness and imagine"

The lights went out.  Heavy music swelled across the darkness, and despite being packed like sardines with fellow concertgoers, each of us was instantly lost and alone.  The noise swirled into an amniotic fluid that washed past my ears and cradled my skin. 

"And then I fell out on the floor"

WHAAM!

"Like a watermelon falling on top of another watermelon"

The song picked up and the lights burned brightly again, but we had changed.  An audience of newborns, we listened to the rest of the show like it was the first music we had ever heard.

All 300 of us screamed at the end of the show until the band retook the stage.  Khan came back on, shirtless and crowned with a gladiator helmet.  Ancient symbols were inked in bands around his arms across his chest, and on his back.  At the center of it all was a glistening brown belly, a tower of flesh lording over the rest of his body.  Rhythm & Blues is music from the gut, and it stands to reason that a prince of the art form would possess nothing less than a regal gut. 

They sent up a final anthem - "You've got to live fast and die strong" - words that should be engraved in Latin on every true rock & roll record.  The band struck what we thought was the final chord, and milked it.  Two minutes later, we realized that chord was a song of its own.  The guitarist was furiously strumming, the keyboard player and drummers still banging the hell out of their instruments.  In the center of the stage, a musician stood blowing a saxophone with one bent leg in the air, twirling: the dance of Shiva.  In that moment the heart of the universe opened up, and you could hear the planets singing.  Only this was no harmony of the spheres, but a cacophony, the full-throated voice of chaos, the mother of all things.

That's rock & roll, my darlings.  Anybody who tries to slip you anything less is jivin' you.

Listen to The Mother of all Rock & Roll Playlists:

King Khan and the Shrines – Land of the Freak

Big Joe Turner – Bump Miss Suzie

Roy Brown – Boogie Woogie Blues

Little Walter – Boogie

Stevie Wonder – Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours

James Brown – I Got the Feelin’

Afrikaa Bambaataa – Zulu Nation Throwdown

Magic Sam – All of Your Love

Otis Rush – All Your Love (I Miss Lovin’)

Little Richard – Good Golly Miss Molly

King Khan and the Shrines – Live Fast Die Strong

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