Collingwood is like a ghost town and the muffled beat of Summadayze can be heard toward one end of Smith Street as I walk toward the Tote. The support act has been and gone by the time I get there and a smattering of people line the beer garden in quiet reflection of the night before – the heat, now reduced to 30 degrees, is zapping most enthusiasm.
Nonetheless, when a jagged guitar sounds in the bandroom everyone moves in to see the source and the room is as full as anyone would like on a night so hot. The oscillating fans are blaring and happily there’s a little space between punters for that air to thread through.
On stage a roasting and tattooed Hanni El Khatib and drummer/backing vocalist Nicky Fleming-Yaryan are on the last date of their four-day Australian debut having already smashed Peats Ridge and Pyramid Rock festivals, and a show at FBi Social in Sydney. Black t-shirts are the friends of the sweaty.
Nicky and his drumkit take up the beer garden side of the stage; Hanni’s microphone is slightly in front to the opposite side so that he can step back into his half to face Nicky whenever he likes.
The man of the hour introduces himself as “Hanni El Khatib from California” quite endearingly, really, since we all know who he is and where he came from. He commences a slow flick of the guitar strings, building slowly into “Garbage City” as Nicky backs him up with an equally languid percussive support. It really is a song for a hot and tiring day; there’s a sort of sleepy, sexy way to the whole room. People are moving and I sense an idea that we’re all gloating about the fact that we’re going to see Hanni play in this intimate a setting, without getting crushed, before many other Melburnians. There’s a tangible appreciation.
“Come Alive” seems an instruction that actually works: hips are going like the slutty girl’s at the prom – this is my favourite from Hanni’s debut Will The Guns Come Out – before the boys descend into a wild breakdown midway-through, sharpening up for a vocal refrain on the reverb mic before the song’s dénouement.
Heavy cymbals and “Twist And Shout” ah, ah, aaaaahs are the signatures for “Build. Kill. Destroy.” and the now-alive crowd work up some vocals too before Hanni tries to make his hair slick back, stating, “It’s fucking hot,” to which Nicky laughs, “You get a fan!”
Hanni takes “You Rascal You” from the cheerful standard 1930s treatment it got from the likes of Clarence Williams, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway and turns it into the murderous ode it is at its heart. Where his predecessors intimated that they would simply be “glad when you’re dead, you rascal you,” they make it sound like the philanderer lurking near their wives died in his sleep of old age. El Khatib takes the dagger himself and hunts that rascal down, carefully at first, with a dark guitar and Nicky working a snare in one hand, a percussion egg in the other and a dirty bass drum, before becoming seriously enraged – the egg gets the flick – and they lose themselves in the chase.
Both are sex-face players who arch their neck back with their eyes closed and disappear into their music without need to watch each other for cues. Even a slight misstep in the first couple of bars of “Loved One” doesn’t make much of a ripple – had Hanni not spun around to refocus Nicky, it would easily have been missed by everyone – and the vocalist lights the song with a soft whisper, punches it with a scream and roars with furious abandon, admitting at the next mic break that he’s on the verge of losing his voice. We wouldn’t know it.
El Khatib calls for requests at that moment and it occurs to me that he might feel he is not connecting with this audience. It must seem quite weird to be copping a classic Melbourne po-faced crowd, but with the heat we must look completely disinterested. He needn’t worry. I feel like the audience is a surly boyfriend and I have to explain to my friends, “He’s normally really nice. Really.”
Their next foray comes in off a rabid guitar flurry to a nice base rockabilly groove perfectly supported by Nicky. It’s not just rock music and yet it is. This song, and another unrecorded, untitled, idea that comes along later, have a really cool quality that modern blues rockers add to compositions. Even though at first glance these bases might be in standard 50s, 60s or even 70s times signatures or utilising style points that are from the original bank, a modern artist by his very nature must be influenced by the other music he’s heard through his decades. It’s fascinating to hear, in the latter song particularly, that what initially strikes out as a hybrid surfer/doo wop work, almost like something from Grease, has an unavoidably 90s grunge thread running through it. It’s perfect stuff for me.
Hanni’s prevalence for weaving other people’s lyrics through his own songs on stage – anything from Kelis to Marvin Gaye – throws me on the first of the aforementioned. I know the words but I can’t quite put my finger on it [subsequent googling shows no good either]. His covers are unique: Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” is seriously broken, the slowest point to the night as yet; the next is a Nicky request that sees the stickman punishing his entire kit. It chugs like a crazy train, the guitar sounding like a run down stairs. “I think you’re crazy…” screams El Khatib at it’s close.
A calm descends with “Dead Wrong”; certainly the gentler moment of the night and Hanni chats amicably with the front row about what he and Nicky should get up to on their last day in Melbourne. [Note: stay in the hotel, dude, it’s going to be 40 degrees.]
Finally, they commence a slow drive in: classic blues rock intro more 70s in style, playing with sounds and space, generally teasing, before launching violently into “Fuck It You Win”. I love this song. It’s got the Black Keys dirtiness and abandon: imagine that bowling-shirted, quiffed man in a 50s kitchen ripping a dishrack full of crockery from the sink and throwing at the rounded Kelvinator in rage while a tattooed hot rod princess points a cigarette and slams a martini down. Can’t see Dan Auerbach pulling that shit, but watching Hanni lose his mind on stage, I could put a man in that picture. Sweating, guitarist and drummer heaving and saturated, the former again says sweetly, “I’m Hanni El Khatib from California.” The guitar is left on front of the amp. This guy’s the real deal.
– Words: Melanie Lewis
– Image: Zo Damage