Rebecca Lauffenburger
Staff Writer

On Feb. 23, San Franciscan-born indie rock multi-instrumentalist Hanni el Khatib, joined by openers Clean Spill and The Buttertones, visited SOHo Restaurant & Music Club. Their stop in Santa Barbara was one of many in promotion of el Khatib’s newest album, Savage Times, released on Feb. 17.

Local act Clean Spill were excellent openers, warming the audience up and setting the tone for the rest of the evening with their light-hearted, highly danceable tunes. The quartet — all of whom are experienced surfers as well as musicians — are clearly authorities in surf culture. Led by vocalist Pat Curren, the Santa Barbara natives sent good vibes all around with their classic feel-good jangle pop sound. Guitarist Cameron Crabtree, bassist Geoff Shea, and drummer Charlie Fawcett managed to deliver good ol’ fashioned alt-rock, packed with no shortage of catchy, melodic hooks, all wrapped up with a clean, polished sound and a laid-back attitude.

For the most part, Clean Spill sounds like what could be an alternate universe version of the Strokes, if Julian Casablancas had been exposed to the surf culture of Southern Californian beach towns rather than the underground garage scenes of New York. However formulaic and predictable their music is, it’s accommodating to their style and songs such as “Sit Up” and “Montezuma” are good examples of alt-rock done right. “Sid” struck a chord with the crowd, in particular, and by the end of their set, more people were dancing than standing still.

The show ventured away from the safety of Clean Spill’s easily lovable sound into the more experimental territory occupied by The Buttertones. Comprised of lead vocalist/guitarist Richard Araiza, drummer/poly-instrumentalist Modesto Cobian, bassist Sean Redmann (formerly of Cherry Glazerr), and saxophonist London Guzman, The Buttertones meet somewhere in the overlap of post-punk technicality, hardcore attitude, and retro sensibilities.

If you’re like me, always trying to figure out what a band’s “going for” the minute they step onstage, good luck with this one. Their music isn’t so easily dissected — the influences are clear, but the outcome is far greater than the sum of its parts. The Buttertones mindfully play around with elements cherry-picked from several different genres in an fresh, unpredictable way. The result is an entirely new creature built on barely-restrained tension and manic energy; one which kept the crowd on their toes throughout the set.

It’s safe to say that Araiza was the glue that held this off-kilter oddity together. Donning a grey fitted suit, and speaking few words, he exuded all the nervous energy of David Byrne meshed with the deep, sweeping vocal theatrics of Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch.

The Buttertones opened with the slow, mellow rockabilly number “Bad Girl,” which the audience was immediately receptive to. But as the show progressed, they distanced themselves from the blissful minimalism of past release and covered new ground with unreleased tracks from Gravedigging, the band’s third studio album, set to drop Mar. 31.

Judging by the songs they performed, The Buttertones’ newest album sees the band departing from their previously established sound in favor of a more amorphous, experimental one. Their new music is somewhat avant-garde, and is best described as art-punk rooted in retro-sounding desert and surf rock, all with an undercurrent of psychedelia. While this may conjure up images of a band spread too thin, they seem to have found their stride with a sound that perfectly encapsulates their onstage persona and attitude.

The Buttertones concluded their set on a high note, with a gloomy, stripped-bare beach goth tune that featured Guzman wailing on sax and Araiza’s vocal progression from angsty croons to all-out thrashing howls. Their unique stage presence coupled with the raw energy of their delivery made for a memorable set, and The Buttertones received just as much love from the audience as they sent out.

The openers had clearly done their jobs, and the crowd was thoroughly pumped up in anticipation of Hanni el Khatib’s appearance. El Khatib left no room for disappointment either — thundering drums announced his entrance on stage — and he immediately launched head first into “Baby’s OK,” the first song off Savage Times, half-crooning, half-screaming, “I was high as fuck/I was high as fuck/ I was high as fuck/ but hear me out.”

El Khatib drew mostly from Savage Times, almost performing the album in its entirety save for a few songs. After the first round of thundering applause, El Khatib dove straight into the album’s second track, “Gonna Die Alone,” with all the power of a steam engine. El Khatib looked content to be doing his own thing on stage, and his energy was so overwhelming at times that it was easy to forget there were other musicians backing him.

The jam-packed crowd was incredibly receptive to his energy from the get-go, pressing themselves up to the stage as close as they could. He had no reservations about getting in the audience’s faces either, as he stalked the stage with an almost predatory fierceness.

He wasn’t still for one moment, and before long, neither was the audience. The desert-disco-flavored “Paralyzed,” ironically enough, sent the surprisingly diverse crowd into a frenzy, as people young and old found someone to dance with under the hypnotizing disco lights swirling around the room. By the end of the song, there were more than a few spilled drinks and stepped-on toes. The crowd got a little too rowdy by El Khatib’s own admission, half-laughing as he said, “You guys are lit,” before jokingly asking us to bring the energy down just a little.

He asked that the lights be dimmed, before breaking out into a down-tempo, soulful rendition of “Come Down,” perhaps the closest any of his songs ever came to a slow dance.

El Khatib ended with “Family,” before returning on stage for an encore performance of “Two Brothers” off his 2015 album Moonlight. The show was reigned back in, but the audience tired out long before El Khatib, who kept finding ways to excite them. During what was one of the most memorable parts of the show, El Khatib joined the crowd down on the floor, where he delivered an impressive, impassioned guitar solo set to funky disco beats.

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