Words by Abby Kearney
As Ben Khan draws to the close of his encore, the crowd by now a sweaty, pulsing mass of bodies, an excited couple enter Soup Kitchen. ‘Great’, one comments to the other, gesturing to the stage, ‘he’s just started.’ Fortunately, the ninety seconds of set they caught was of ‘1000’ the title track of Kahn’s new EP and his best release yet. It’s a slick bit of buoyant funk showcasing Kahn’s two great talents; spidery, sharp guitar work and Prince-like acrobatic vocals. Unfortunately they missed all of the rest of Khan’s material, which is consistently excellent.
Little is known of Khan. When he quietly slipped demos ‘Savage‘ and ‘Eden‘ onto Soundcloud in 2013, they provoked a minor internet frenzy; taste-makers championed him, admirers tried to replicate him . After a series of unfruitful run ins with the music press, Kahn’s gained a reputation for being ‘enigmatic’ and ‘inscrutable’. We’re told how he responds to interview questions with an unnerving combination of silence and Salvador Dali quotes. And we can see how he maintains a tastefully sparse and cryptic Twitter page, featuring tampered with self portraits. Some say he’s the puppet of the AWOL London producer Jai Paul, to whom he sounds very similar. Others say he is Jai Paul.
Tonight, inscrutable though he may be, his music is anything but. Sure, it’s sophisticated and inventive but it’s also accessible and infectious, tight, well produced pop. It’s got the groove of J Dilla, the soulfulness of D’Angelo and the good-time hooks of Fleetwood Mac. Everybody whoops enthusiastically for the sublime ‘Youth‘, in which melancholic synths rise and burst into upbeat, pulsing funk. And for early release ‘Eden’ too, with it’s subdued, minimalist, backdrop for Kahn’s breathy voice, cut through with screeches. From the new EP, ‘Zenith’ is launched, all icy, cutting, pulsing groove and slick vocals.
Soup Kitchen’s full to capacity, and the crowd spills into the stairway. For ‘1000‘ Radio 1’s ‘Hottest Track’ of a few weeks ago, the crowd moves frenetically, waving camera phones. Most people know and sing Khan’s lyrics. Having never paid proper attention to them before I was surprised by the unforeseen ambiguities they open in his work: ‘Savage’ being either a call for revolt or something about Agent Orange, maybe both. A light show has been well curated, so that when Kahn strikes the guitar and the drummer the drums, the room is bathed in reds and blues and greens, adding a special kind of immediacy and immersive feel to the music.
When the set finishes, everybody waits, vaguely hoping for Khan’s return. As yet, he doesn’t have a hugely extensive bank of material. And in the absence of him improvising with what he has, it all moves very quickly, too quickly. ‘More, more more’, chant the audience, but he’s gone, slipped away silently. We won’t take away a clearer image of Khan the man tonight, especially me, who could only see him when people in front moved their heads in very specific ways. But, in that, he’s achieved his desired effect; that the music speak for itself.