Standing in the crowd, arms crossed, clutching a mixed drink and bobbing his head to the jangly punk rock of opening act Gentleman Jesse and His Men
, King Khan looked like a regular dude. He wore thick black frame glasses and Converse sneakers, and sported an immaculately trimmed pencil mustache and soul patch. He could have been just another random bohemian who stumbled in off Cherokee Street to see the show.
About 30 minutes later, however, he stepped on stage to the blaring horns of his backing band the Shrines and became a man possessed. Wearing a shiny red paisley patterned smoking jacket that looked like it came straight from Hugh Hefner's closet, Khan wailed and moaned and yelped as if the only exorcism capable of returning him to his mortal form was rock and roll.
The Shrines -- all nine of them, including a stunning woman in a red dress whose sole purpose was to dance on stage and look sexy -- were almost as wild as their frontman. The sax players blew their
horns until their cheeks looked ready to burst. On songs with no wind
instruments, they all picked up tambourines and added an extra layer to
the already thunderous rhythm section. The keyboard player let his
chin-length hair dangle over his face, so that the microphone seemed to
disappear when he leaned forward to belt out the backup vocals. The
guitar and bass players bounded back and forth across the stage, then
went back to back and supplied the "ooohs" and "ahhhss" on the harmony
Put your ten favorite soul, punk, funk and rockabilly records into a sonic blender and press frappe. That's their aesthetic and it was done to perfection last night on songs like "Land of the Freak," "Welfare Bread" and "Took My Lady to Dinner."
But make no mistake, Khan was the star of this show. Others have compared him to a cross between James Brown and Iggy Pop. That's a fairly accurate approximation, but really he's an entity all his own. He unleashes the same "ughs!" "owws!" and "huhs!" as the Godfather of Soul and has the same exhibitionist impulses as Iggy, but he also has the nonchalant vibe of a lounge singer who is utterly confident in both his cool and his shtick.
Several times he just stepped back from the mic, cocked his head to the side to see what was happening (on two occasions women from the audience had climbed on stage to dance), and smirked, as if to say "goddamn, this is fun!
During "I Wanna Be Your Dog," he stepped off the stage and into the crowd. He was wearing a black velvet bowler hat with long pheasant feathers jutting up from the top, and as he wandered around the crowded (but not quite sold out) venue the feathers looked like a shark fin circling the sea of people.
He poked fun at the misadventure -- his tour manager getting busted for possession of magic mushrooms
in Kentucky on the drive from Nashville to St. Louis -- that caused him to miss his last scheduled stop in town, at Off Broadway last November. Introducing one song he said, "We're gonna get a little psychedelic on y'all...so don't call the police."
When the set ended, the crowd clapped and stomped on the floor, demanding an encore. The band trickled back on stage and Khan soon followed wearing a glossy gold cape, no shirt and and a high-topped official-looking military cap. "This is for all you punk rockers out there," he said, and with that
the Shrines let loose a foreboding horn riff and Khan drained his lungs
shouting, "You got to live! you got to die!"
Toward the end, Khan and a few of the Shrines waded into the crowd for the third and final time. Without the feathers in his cap it was impossible to see where he was headed. Since he never returned to the stage, the best bet is that he probably just reverted back to his unassuming, everyday self.