KONGOS brings South African flavors to Houston
You’ve got an eccentric accordionist, an American slide guitarist with rigid posture and a lead vocalist that looks equal parts Game of Throne’s John Snow and pop-rock’s John Mayer. Toss in a shaggy-haired drummer with the growling voice of a territorial Rottweiler, and you’re looking at KONGOS, an Arizonian-band with distinctive South African influences.
And no, not something that hearkens to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. KONGOS has more of a Dropkick Murphey’s meets ‘60s blues vibe, which might not have been a thing before they hit the scene.
The quartet, made up of four brothers (Daniel, Dylan, Johnny and Jesse), performed at Warehouse Live along with Sir Sly and the lesser-known Colony House. Though Colony House was the first on stage that night (usually the band it’s OK to miss), they gave a sharp, well-mixed performance, taking the stage to a few polite claps and leaving it in front of a room of newly converted worshippers.
Despite their indie-status and assumed commercial limitations, the band’s debut LP When I Was Younger is a knockout. It plays with the crisp clarity of a band with a much larger production budget, and each track will remind you of Young the Giant’s better singles – tight, catchy, crunchy and kindly worded. It’s an album to have on vinyl, as it’s best when listened to repeatedly and obsessively.
Sir Sly is best described as a hybrid between the great-for-a-rainy-day The Neighbourhood and more animated nu disco. They looked like they just came off of Warper Tour, and their music has just enough angst to make such a performance believable. It was electric, though, and Sir Sly tamed all their song’s moving parts to remain intact when they reached the audience.
The sons of South African pop legend John Kongos, KONGOS brought together Colony House and Sir Sly pretty neatly: they blended grungy, alternative rock with mass appeal and tossed in some genre-bending elements– y’know, like glossy keys and a screaming accordion. And for four guys that grew up in the house of a pop legend, you can tell their musical influences come far and wide. Their sound is distinct enough to secure KONGOS in an identity you won’t hear twice, but dynamic enough where they’re a hard bunch to describe.
KONGOS opened the show with, “Hey I Don’t Know,” a playfully sinister track, its darkness fueled in-part by the meaty vocals of their mostly-drummer. He takes the lyrical helm in this song, bringing grit to otherwise vulnerable lyrics: Tears are shed, a shame I should have known, the crown weighs heavy, heavy as I sit back in my throne.
Most of their songs sound Cajun to the untrained ear, most obviously including their single “Come With Me Now” that can inspire institutional defiance in the hearts of even the most vapid Top 40 listeners (the song’s been topping their charts for months now). It’s got a screaming guitar solo, something that was surprising to see played on the Fender Stratocaster normally associated with warm, clean tonnage and not muddied rock.
They debuted two new songs, suggesting that KONGOS’ next release will play as a wildly different album than its predecessor. They traded some of their grit for glossy synth, especially in the to-be released “Out of Mind,” a rock-trance that details the guys’ euphoric experiences in a crappy nightclub. Don’t worry – it’s still got plenty of slide guitar and an expansive instrumental portion where accordionist Johnny Kongos enjoys some well-earned solo time.
I predict their next LP will have elements of pop – not Top 40 pop, but polished ‘80s synth– previously unseen in any of KONGOS’ work. Whether it’s a harkening to their father’s influence or a sign that American music has left its mark, who cares? It’ll be worth seeing live.