Concert Review: King Khan & the Shrines, 3/30/2010

They fought the law, and the law…well, let’s call it a draw.

What law, you ask? Why, the law of diminishing returns. Do essentially the same thing over and over, and you’ll get less of a return on your investment. And to some extent, that’s what happened on March 30 when King Khan and the (Sensational) Shrines stormed the stage of Asheville’s Orange Peel.

It didn’t have to be that way. I’ve seen Khan with this band three times now, and their live shows can be nothing short of incendiary. Sure, they’re a bit mannered, and some planning is absolutely essential when you crowd ten people onto stages of varying sizes. The band includes frontman King Khan on vocals and some guitar, plus a standard band lineup of guitar / bass/ drums / keys. To that they add a percussionist, three horn players (one of whom adds guitar on some numbers) and of course their famous cheerleader Bamboorella.

But having seen the band twice before (once on this same stage in 2009, and before that at Washington DC’s Rock and Roll Hotel in summer 2008) I must report that the show — while quite exciting — was essentially those shows, redone.

Once again the band opened (after a brief instrumental intro) with the winning “(How Can I Keep You) Outta Harm’s Way.” And from there the set list followed a path quite similar to that of the shows from one and two years before. A few cuts I didn’t recognize might be newer songs, or they might be ones I just hadn’t heard before. Khan’s lengthy humorous storytelling over “I Took My Baby to Dinner” was a warmed-over plate; I’d been served that dish before.

But I don’t want to be too hard on Khan and his band. They did rock, and the audience loved every minute of the show. Concertgoers who haven’t seen the band before would likely voice none of the concerns I’ve cited so far. The band was in fine, energetic form, and delivered their trademark wild abandon. The guitarist and bassist deserve special mention: playing intentionally-cheap looking brands of instruments (Harmony and Hofner, respectively), they kept things rock-solid and thrilling at the same time. And the keyboard player lifted his (relatively heavy) organ emulator over his head several times during the show, often while continuing to play. Showy yet effective. And loads of fun.

The band is very visual. Ten people running around the stage while cranking out a high-energy cross between James Brown and the Sex Pistols, they thrilled the youngish crowd. But Khan seemed ever-so-slightly off his game; tired, perhaps. Wherein in the past his demeanor conveyed an effective cross between debauchery and communitarianism, on this night he didn’t seem to connect with the audience at his usual level. They were giving him and the band plenty of love, but while the 2008 Khan roamed the audience bowing namaste-style to dozens of people one by one, on this night he instead spat some sort of liquid on people in the front.

The relatively brief show (about 70 minutes including encore) covered all of the Shrines styles, but didn’t offer much that pointed a way toward the future. King Khan and the Shrines deserve a wider audience, both on the strength of their recorded output and on the thrill of their live show. But if they don’t change it up onstage a little more, they may never break out into that well-deserved wider success. Here’s hoping they do. And despite my reservations, I’ll be there the next time they roll around these parts to check on their progress. Because even when they’re not bringing their best, King Khan and the Shrines still out-rock and out-entertain most bands.