Live Review: Blk Jks at the Echo, May 21, 2009

The biggest obstacle before Secretly Canadian recording artists Blk Jks isn’t securing a fanbase, getting tour dates or even press coverage.  No, the perpetual issue for this Johannesburg-based psych-rock/dub/fusion outfit will be avoiding tags like “TV On The Radio meets Graceland-era Paul Simon,” “Mr. Bungle helmed by Jim Hendrix crossed up with King Tubby” or even “Vampire Weekend, except harder, darker, experimental and actually from Africa.”  Not that these descriptions are distasteful or wholly inaccurate per se (except the Vampire Weekend one), but while the band readily admits they have a Western rock sound, any cultural signposts like the ones issued above will simply miss the point — which is that in the end, Blk Jks, as a South African outfit melding their native influences with those of the known western music lexicon, can only be…Blk Jks.

"A" is for Apple, "J" is for jacks, just don't use "A" when spelling Blk Jks (photo by author).

"A" is for Apple, "J" is for jacks, just don't use "A" when spelling Blk Jks (photo by author).

It’s therefore unsurprising that a sparsely populated Echo greeted the band when they took the stage there last Thursday night.  After all, unwieldy descriptions definitely make for hit-or-miss concert experiences, and in the case of Blk Jks (who previously played L.A. at the Natural History Museum), not enough track record exists yet for music fans to use in making a decision to see them live.

Nonetheless, the moment of silence just before Blk Jks hit the ignition switch on their set-starter was most definitely the sound of minds about to be blown.

What was instantly apparent when the band started playing was that their live sound is much more aggressive than what’s captured on their current EP, Mystery.  Probably owing to being produced by Secret Machines’ Brandon Curtis, Mystery feels substantially more spatial and jammy than Blk Jks as a live experience, which is much more akin to sharing a cage with a tethered game cat – it’s sleeping one moment, tearing your face off the next.

Which is what Blk Jks did.  Over and over again.

Tighter than Martha Stewart on her first day of prison, Blk Jks’ abrupt stylistic and meter changes were frequent to the point of making some audience members laugh at the sheer audacity of song arrangements.  And though the band’s musical chops were top-notch, their tunes were simultaneously quite danceable throughout.  That’s a bit of the beauty of Blk Jks: while it’s a reach to say there’s something here for everyone, between the slippery groove of “Lakeside” to the dense, seismic rock of “Summertime,” Blk Jks come awfully close.  Throw in the ethno-musical pedigree and the appeal of the musicianship and it’s not hard to understand why the Echo crowd was a racially mixed brew varying from noodle-dancing hippies to squinting collegiate types and everything in between.

…Though not a pair of top-siders was seen in the bunch.

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