San Francisco has a mighty sweet tooth for vintage soul and R&B. The July calendar alone for the SF Soul Scene blog lists DJs serving up crate-scavenged classics on a weekly basis. To wit: Mondays, there's Black Gold at KoKo Cocktails. Tuesdays, Lost & Found takes over at Make-Out Room. Jump to the weekend and you have the semimonthly Saturday Night Soul Party at the Elbo Room, and the 45 Club at the Knockout the last Sunday of the month. And that's not even counting all the kids flipping through the vinyl stacks at Rooky Ricardo's soulmine in the Lower Haight.
So the ground is fertile for Berlin's King Khan and the Shrines to become instant classics when they play San Francisco this week. Khan is a well-known figure in the garage-rock scene, having performed over the last decade plus with his old band the Spaceshits and more recently in his bloozy twosome, the King Khan & BBQ Show. But with these Shrines, this howler has really become a force to be heard. His ten-member psychedelic soul band includes a horn section, go-go dancers, an organist, and the mighty gale of Khan's unfettered declarations. His international backing act — a "musical family" that includes six Germans, two Frenchmen, and American Ron Streeter, who has drummed with Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder — elevates the stage show into what he calls the "eyegasm."
"I love the whole gospel tradition, having everyone singing and dancing with you," Khan says. "I love the way that old soul bands back in the '60s had costumes. I try to make it an erotic gospel experience: sensual and religious."
At one recent Monday night gig in Chapel Hill, Khan and his Shrines inspired both making out and fist fights in the crowd. "It really does feel like a religious experience because we have people almost talking in tongues and doing strange shit," he says. "It's somewhere between violence and something beautiful."
The theatrics would be meaningless, though, if there weren't some sensational music behind all that revelry. Luckily, the group's new disc, The Supreme Genius of King Khan & the Shrines, lives up to its name. It's one of my favorite garage-rock records of the year (alongside that last Dirtbombs platter and the Jay Reatard singles comp), with a whole lot of soul. These songs have been floating around Europe since the band came together eight years ago, but Vice is releasing this greatest hits of sorts in the States.
The Supreme Genius collects Khan's discology into one uninhibited package of loving, leaving, and eating. Take, for example, "Took My Lady to Dinner." A funky horn section and driving bassline back Khan's digressions about taking a lover who orders "15 pounds of ribs" and "ice cream, numbers 5 through 69." His date is "Fat! She's ugly! She's fat and she's ugly!" But he loves her! And he needs her! And he's gonna tell ya! "Welfare Bread" is another love song of seduction and stomachs, with Khan turning the title into a double entendre of what the missus is going to chow down on after dinner. Of course, these lyrics come from the same entertainer who titled an album What's for Dinner. "I guess I'm not really maturing," he says with a laugh. "That's why I sleep in a fridge."
Okay, that's a wee exaggeration (after all, this is a married man with two young daughters). But the guy does love whipping up a good meal. "One of the things I enjoy most is cooking," Khan says. "What makes me sad is people who cook without love." Not to mention the whole history of food themes in R&B songs praising the likes of collard greens, pork chops, and their conjugal metaphors. "You can hide sexual innuendos in food," he says with a laugh, "with a hot dog or fish pie ... it's finger-licking good." As for the larger ladies lapping up the goods, Khan says he's following his predecessors there, too: "Singing about ugly women, singing about fat women — it's all part of that good old R&B tradition." Although the gal in question from "Took My Lady to Dinner" was inspired by an old high school grad dance date in his native Montreal. "She finished everyone's plate at the table we were sitting at," he says. "While everyone else was slow dancing, I was sitting at the table watching her eat. I thought it was pretty cool."
Khan's lyrical appetite ranges beyond the dinner table, though. He celebrates populating a funky planet, James Brown style, on "Land of the Freak," and he penned the summer's best good-times anthem with "No Regrets." Occasionally he'll get a bit pensive, Khan style: Check the self-explanatory "I Wanna Be a Girl" or the Otis Redding slow-dance to heartbreak, "Fool Like Me." (Lyrics to the latter: "She takes out a piece of gum, only it's already been chewed/And she puts it straight into your mouth and says, 'Baby, you're born to lose.")
The commanding horn section gives these songs strength, as does Khan's raw aesthetic, something he has brought into both his own records and the Black Lips' Let It Bloom (which he produced half of in his living room). The same free spirit in his lyrics runs through his production style, which delivers a wild, live club vibe even filtered through a CD. In an era blatantly mixing retro soul and rock 'n' roll to great result (see anything involving the Dap-Kings), King Khan and the Shrines still stand out as untamed, temperamental, and too much fun. "I don't think anyone does it in the raw way we do it," Khan says. "Now when you hear a soul band, you think of someone in a casino playing Lionel Richie. We're trying to bring the dark meaty funky crazy fun soul back." It all starts with that delirious — and delicious — Khan scream, a rock 'n' soul siren that, like his ladies' tastes in menus, is all-consuming.