A&E Review

Review: Khruangbin’s “A LA SALA” Tour Comes to San Diego

Khruangbin playing at The Rady Shell at Jacobs’s Park on April 16. Photo Credit to Sofia Lo Piano.

By: Sofia Lo Piano

A lamp-like glow illuminated the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park as the sun set. With downtown San Diego skyscrapers to the right and Coronado Bay to the left, this spot rests like a pearl waiting to be discovered, much like the band that played within its sloped walls on the evening of April 16, 2024.

It was Khruangbin’s second stop on their more than seven-month United States and European tour, featuring their April 5, 2024 release, “A LA SALA.” This album is their eighth since the release of their first, “The Universe Smiles Upon You,” in 2015.

A trio originally from Houston, Texas, but with sounds from all over the world, they intoxicated their audience with smooth rhythms and waving tempos. Taking inspiration primarily from 1960s and 1970s Thai funk/rock, this group has fused international sounds from Spain to the Middle East. 

The mixture of global influence within their Texas roots has created an experience transcending a single genre. 

Guitarist Mark Speer said in a 2013 interview for “Ransom Note” that the ‘60s and ‘70s Thai cassettes they listened to “had a heavy impact on the direction of the band … like what scales we use and the inflection of the melodies.” 

In the same interview, bassist Laura Lee described the birth of Khruangbin as happening in a barn “in the ‘middle of nowhere [Burton, Texas],’” saying, “I think that aspect of Texas — the spaciousness, the big sky, the air — is definitely in our sound.” 

Lee said that their songs are formed through a “kind of a call and response between the drums, bass and guitar.” 

Their sound can be best described as instrumental, bass-heavy, psychedelic rock with hints of folk traditions that is quoted in a Music Mil blog post as sounding “like what I think floating around inside a lava lamp would feel like.”

“Khruangbin” is Lee’s favorite Thai word directly translating to “engine fly,” and it’s used in the same context as “airplane” is in English. This name is meant to encompass the expansive reach they strive to include in their repertoire as admirers of Eastern culture. 

Being in the outdoor sanctuary of Jacobs Park and looking up towards the oval-shaped structure was to feel like a grain of sand sitting at the mouth of a clam shell.

Fans stood from their sprawling seats on the sloping steps of the artificial grass in the late evening when the show opened with 30 minutes of Latin American guitar instrumentals by Los Hermanos Gutiérrez. They are a brother duo of Ecuadorian-Swiss origin who will be touring with Khruangbin until April 27.

Just under an hour later, Khruangbin took their places in the center of the shell with Laura Lee on bass, Mark Speer on guitar, and Donald Johnson on drums. Without a single word, and with Lee and Speer perched on the sills of the arched window backdrop, they eased right into the opening track, “Fifteen Fifty-Three.”

The mist from the fog machine hung in the air, mingling with the herbal plumes of smoke that billowed with every pluck of a guitar string. The stage lights cast cascades of changing colors on the faces of fans with brilliant hues of orange, yellow, red, pink, blue and white. They shifted as the mood did, strobing at crescendos and dimming at pauses, following along with each track of the album.

Throughout “A LA SALA,” which means “to the living room” in Spanish, the tracks sped up and slowed down, mimicking the pace of life: how there can simultaneously be stolen moments of serenity and sequences of insanity; moments where you’re not on the ground, when you’re here but not there.

It was a spiritual experience to vanish from the self into vibrations. To forget about life for a while. It was as if listening brought one closer to their humanity, or even to something beyond human. 

Their music has a way of holding its listeners, dangling them from its fingertips so that they feel free. The crowd swayed and sailed into the night in a radiating peace. 

As an album, “A LA SALA” was more somber and pensive than some of their others, with a safe and wistful quality that felt like the heaviness of sleeping and the unreality of dreaming. The final song, “Les Petits Gris,” felt like a lullaby, like the nighttime quiet and yet restless thinking that doesn’t cease, but steadily beats in the brain.

Toward the end of the night, the trio gracefully bowed in silence and the shell’s lights darkened. For five minutes the crowd cheered in darkness, uncertain if the musicians would be returning for more.  

Again without a word, Khruangbin swiftly re-entered the shell’s center and seamlessly burst into the third track from their first album, “Dern Kala,” a personal favorite. Its energy contrasted with the softness of the album, and the break allowed “A LA SALA” to breathe before it was time for more. 

The second set was groovy, upbeat and faster-paced. It included hits from their 2020 album “Mordechai” like “Pelota” and “So We Won’t Forget.” The crowd danced, drifting deeper into the dark skies.

“A LA SALA” seemed to be a welcome into the night, into a home — Khruangbin’s home, the home we can all find in their music. The fact that the musicians didn’t speak between sets or songs was symbolic of their mystifying essence, of their embodiment of the simple truth that words sometimes can’t say what needs to be shared.

A new meaning to their name existed that night, one beyond the inflatable airplanes tossed throughout the front rows. Khruangbin means to float high among the clouds, seeing the world from above. Seeing that nothing is too big anymore, and that everything can be taken away.

The only words any of the band members spoke were from Speer: a simple “Thank you so much, San Diego. Thank you so much.” They allowed the music to do the speaking for them, music with so few words but so much to say.

At 9:50 pm the shell darkened once again, and just when the concert appeared to have actually ended, a slow-building beat emanated from the shadows, culminating into a speedy rendition of another favorite from their first album, “People Everywhere (Still Alive).” 

I sensed the sounds as they circulated through me. I saw people everywhere. And I felt alive.