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Wednesday, 18 April 2012 14:54

Concert review: Hanni El Khatib wins with fuzz, funk and a whisper at the Old Rock House, Tuesday, April 17

Concert review: Hanni El Khatib wins with fuzz, funk and a whisper at the Old Rock House, Tuesday, April 17
Written by Robin Wheeler

Blame belated Tax Day, the Cardinals home game or Willie Nelson's set at the Pageant for the small crowd at the Old Rock House for Los Angeles garage punk/bluesman Hanni El Khatib.

Their loss. El Khatib with drummer Nicky Fleming-Yaryan and multi-instrumentalist Hayden Tobin brought their A game, despite having to give the small audience some encouragement.

Local openers Via Dove played straight up Stones and Zeppelin-tinged rock 'n' roll like they were in an arena. Their solid 30 minute set was too short for the momentum they created. An hour after they finished, New York trio the Sundelles offered a tight set of surfy pop filled with heavy bass and ringing guitar. Their originals surrounded a Pixies-influenced take on Big Star's "13."

El Khatib opened with the dark "Garbage City." While the band signaled some issues with drum levels, the too-loud beat actually worked with the song, lending heightened heat and intensity to an opening dedicated to urban downfall.

The band maintained the intensity through a blistering "Come Alive." Much fuller and richer than the recording, which is a drum-and-guitar chant, the band changed it to a full-on bombastic charge. Until the last line, delivered a cappella by El Khatib: "'Cause ain't no love like a love like this, 'cause a love don't exist when a boy wanna play, so." Fiery and fast, the juxtaposition of silence and noise made a sharp display of lust and rage.

El Khatib continued to toy with silence and breaks through the set. Unlike many of his garage contemporaries, he doesn't rely just on the sheer power of noise and volume. While the set didn't lack in either, its real power came from El Khatib's deft use of silence amid the chaos. In "Build. Destroy. Rebuild," a startling yelp ending a one-second instrumental pause had the power to surprise and ultimately give the brief, sparse song emotional depth.

Despite this, El Khatib had to ask the bulk of the crowd, seated in the venue's middle room, to please move forward and "make it feel like a real show. I know you're comfortable, but you can sit at the break. Okay?" He was cordial about it, and the audience eventually moved closer to the front. Some even danced. It's a shame they had to be asked, though, especially by musicians as engaging as El Khatib, Tobin, and Fleming-Yaryan.

For "You Rascal You," El Khatib employed the hollow, echoed vocals that punctuate his 2011 debut album, "Will the Guns Come Out?", which he followed with an extended guitar ending. He can shred, reminiscent of Jack White in his club-playing days. He continued the onslaught with "Loved One," both more richly-layered than the album version, but accented with more silent breaks and vocals ranging from whispers to whoops.

Their take on Funkadelic's "I Got a Thing" started with a rumbling guitar solo that expanded into Fleming-Yaryan's primal beat, eventually creating a shrieking, panicked guitar dual with Tobin. From this punked-up funk they seamlessly switched into the '50s doo-wop of "Dead Wrong." Fleming-Yaryan added falsetto back-up vocals through the nostalgic, poppy melody. Loaded with breaks and pauses, it built anticipation for the explosive conclusion -- a snare-cymbal-bass drum onslaught under a psych rock guitar blanket.

El Khatib announced they had time for one more song. The crowd, which had seemed so ambivalent at first, yelled requests for "Fuck It, You Win." El Khatib obliged with an early '80s metal-influenced opening riff before counting off to fuzzed guitars. Recorded, the song builds from angst to anger in a stripped-down, metallic background. Live, it's thicker and more nuanced, the original's rage tempered to heartbroken frustration. El Khatib delivered the third verse without accompaniment: "Love me when you're tired, why dontcha. Hate me when you're drunk, oh why dontcha." A quiet plea surrounded by his self-described "knife fight music," a bomb of hurt and heart almost buried in noise, buoyed by silence that transcended the expectations of garage rock's simplicity, without abandoning it.

With breakneck punk pacing, the set clocked in at barely an hour with no encore. Tight, clean, sharp-edged, and once again knowing exactly when to wallop listeners with quiet.

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