As New York discovered in no uncertain terms last summer when the star-studded “We Love NYC” concert in Central Park was abruptly canceled less than halfway before it was over, the threat of lightning is no joke when it comes to outdoor events. And although thunderclouds and some serious lightning flashes were a backdrop for Khruangbin and Vieux Farka Toure’s concert at a BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn concert at the New York borough’s Prospect Park, they passed to the south without a drop of rain, and the completely sold-out concert went on without incident from Mother Nature — except for some characteristically brutal NYC summer humidity.
Khruangbin, a trio from Houston that plays mostly instrumental music, is a band as unusual as their name, and what was perhaps most remarkable about the concert was the size of the densely packed crowd — there aren’t many bands like them who are popular enough to sell out New York’s 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall, which they did earlier this year. While they were originally (broadly) categorized as an alternative act and quickly embraced by the Pitchfork contingent, the easy groove of their music — highlighted by Mark Speer’s effortlessly stunning guitar playing — and a series of high-profile festival appearances soon brought them a big following with the jam-band audience. Both audiences were out in force at this concert and grooving joyfully to the group’s headlining set, which drew heavily from their two most recent albums, 2018’s “Con Todo el Mundo” and 2020’s “Mordechai” (leaving off selections from their two most recent releases, a pair of EPs with Leon Bridges on vocals).
Unlike most instrumental-based rock bands, Khruangbin don’t traffic in intensity: In fact, they’re downright laid-back. Speer, indisputably one of the best guitarists to emerge in the past decade, plays astonishing melodic licks almost offhandedly, often fingerpicking a lead and arpeggiated chords at the same time, while bassist Laura Lee and Donald “DJ” Johnson hold down the unhurried rhythms smoothly. It’s not that they couldn’t play more heavily or hit harder; they just don’t. Speer and Lee also know how to fill a stage, striding from one side to the other, occasionally striking poses like the one above while a pair of big disco balls and some vibrant lighting provide an appropriately moody backdrop.
The group stretched out their 90-minute-plus-long set with some winking nods to New York’s musical legacy, with instrumental snippets of Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” the oft-sampled Shadows song “Apache” and even Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” They also sprinkled some less on-message covers into the set, including a segment of Spandau Ballet’s 1985 hit “True” (huh?) and Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness.”
Yet the truly special moment came during the encore, when the audience even got a preview of the group’s forthcoming collaborative album with Vieux, “Ali.” The album is an homage to Vieux’s father Ali Farka Toure, who played a huge role in forging the guitar-driven Malian sound that has borne fruit with such acts as Tinariwen, Mdou Moctar and of course Vieux himself. He and his three fellow musicians (bass, drums and percussion) played a rousing opening set, and then Vieux joined Khruangbin for the encore, a song from the album titled “Mahine Me.” He and Speer traded guitar licks, both peeling off lightning-fast leads in tribute to a man whose music was a colossal influence on both, bringing thunder to the stage while the lightning, thankfully, stayed well south of the venue.
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