It’s little wonder L.A. garage rock gargoyle Hanni El Khatib caught Dan Auerbach’s attention. The familiar breed of fuzzed-out garage blues on Hanni’s debut Will The Guns Come Out alternately pops and grinds—the sonic approximation of a malt shop waitress’ pink wad of bubblegum spat onto filthy California gravel during a graveyard shift smoke break. On tape, the unpolished riffage and croons resemble an early Black Keys track so closely that Hanni’s “You Rascal You” fooled many a forum dweller when chosen as the unofficial theme song for lowlife grandstander Kenny Powers’ return to HBO.
When his “Highway Man” tour brought him to Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge on Saturday night though, Hanni was an animal of a different pedigree. Black clad, hair slicked and combed, arms inked with sleeves of lady faces and royal icons, the dude affects a greaser vibe. When not at the mic to croon signature verses like, “I’ll be standing on a corner full of gin/ when they bring your dead body in,” he’s prowling his available domain behind a guitar that bucks and squalls like a Quidditch broom fighting for freedom. Simply put: Hanni’s music is garage rock, still built to rock garages.
Hanni’s 60-minute Mercury Lounge set was a snarling progression of engine revs, eschewing slower material, like his album’s shuffling “Heartbreak Hotel” cover, for amped-up twists like the Cramps’ “Human Fly”. Hanni, guitarist/keyboardist Hayden Tobin and drummer Nicky Fleming-Yaryan (there was no bass) stuck to the script for most of Will The Guns Come Out favorites like the three-chord thunder of “Build.Destroy.Rebuild.” and essential don’t-judge-a-crook-by-his-cover anthem “Dead Wrong,” but the most compelling moments came from bursts of solo shredding in the few open-ended numbers. An extended cut of “You Rascal,” the aforementioned Kenny Powers-approved fuzz fest, was the night’s pre-encore highlight that saw Hanni punching and sliding into a battery of high notes while keyboardist Tobin and Fleming-Yaryan kept the heavy beat a-choogling. Encore song “Fuck It. You Win” demanded a revival of this raucous energy while Hanni belted out his most anguished bleats of the evening, finally relenting to a last gasp of melting reverb.
The frontline of the audience kept in constant motion throughout the night, while most of those swarming the 200-capacity room got away with head bobs and cat calls. Ultimately, Hanni’s beer received more shout-outs than he did (“YEAAAH! TECATEEEE!”). But, to be fair, his name is kind of hard to pronounce. And, in the sage words of Hanni El Khatib, when the going gets tough: “Fuck it.”