Touring to promote their new “radio-ready” album Egomaniac, released in June this year, KONGOS played three dates in the UK fresh off the European leg of the tour. I managed to cough for tickets in London at the o2 Academy, and, pleasingly, so did loads of other people. I felt particularly patriotic supporting an SA band in London, and the other South Africans in the crowd were equally enthusiastic about our shared origins. Let me say up front that this was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to, of any band in any country. They might bill themselves as a ‘South African-born American band’ but they betray their roots with afro-indie guitar licks and poignant lyrical nods to home.
Standing at the bar, languages drifted around me – it seemed that the KONGOS’ European success had crossed the Channel. French, Spanish and Portuguese fans had obviously given their friends in London a heads up. Waiting for the opener I sold a vital organ for two beers and settled in for some top notch people watching. It had been empty when I arrived but as the room filled my fears were allayed.
Tempesst, the openers (so called because “a band in San Francisco called Tempest, with one s, got peevish with us” the guitarist later told me) played a combination of classic rock-style originals and alternative soundscapes. I’m not sure if it was the effect of my obscenely expensive beer but I have seldom been so enamoured of an opener and with time, a tighter set and a hit single they should do alright.
While Tempesst played, the venue filled up and my concern that I’d be a lone patriot at the gig was finally banished. The crowd was thick and buzzing by the time KONGOS came on, launching into “I Want It Free“. Their set was perfectly sequenced, interspersing old favourites like “I Want to Know” with newer tracks off Egomaniac, though most the crowd knew both the new and old tracks. At first, I hung back in the club, watching the crowd’s reactions but was eventually swept into the elation of the fans as they sang along to “I Don’t Mind“. It tells the story of a night much like the one I was having: messy and happy, the kind of night that you wish every night out was like. Prior to launching into “The World Would Run Better“, KONGOS bassist and pretty boy Dylan Kongos, commented, “This song is in light of the results of US elections today.” The crowd erupted in laughter and sang every word, indicating the general relief the English are currently experiencing at now that America has displaced them in the number one spot of Most Monumental National Fuck Up of 2016. It was a beautiful moment of irony and resistance in the most unpredictable context. When I’m old and people ask me where I was when I heard that Trump had won the 2016 USA election, this is the story I’ll tell.
In a nod to Britain’s contributions to world music, the set included the very best version of The Beatles‘ “Get Back” that has ever been heard by human ears. KONGOS shifted between styles seamlessly, delighting the audience who moved through the genres with them, grooving through the reggae, dance and rock styles with the lack of cool that only white people dancing can achieve. Despite the glaring rhythmic handicap, the audience did what I believe is idiomatically referred to as ‘dancing one’s face off’. A testament to the strength of Egomaniac as an album is the number of songs on it that were included in the set-list: those already mentioned as well as “Birds Do It“, “Where I Belong” and my favourite track off the album “Take It From Me“. Unsurprisingly their biggest hit “Come With Me Now” also went down like shots at the end of a long week. The woman in front of me must have had the most epic bangover the next day. It was the kind of gig that hack music journalists like myself refer to as ‘electric’.
Now, I have never cried in a club (except for the handful of times when I was very drunk in my undergrad), but when KONGOS played “It’s A Good Life” in tribute to the South Africans in the club, I’ll admit my eyes welled up. When, in the encore, they played “Escape“, a romantic, slightly sentimental tribute to Cape Town, a few tears made for freedom. KONGOS married the fun and dance of the rest of the gig with the emotional intensity of Escape, playing to the crowd and shifting gears with the ease of a decades-old band, belying their age.
Afterwards, I pushed out into the frigid cold of London in November and made my way down to the Tube, sweaty, teary and happy in that way that makes you ignore how much your feet hurt. KONGOS have clearly hit their stride on this tour, gaining fans with their irreverent audience interaction, tight sets and of course the gorgeous tone of their uniquely powerful alt-rock, afro-indie, I-didn’t-even-know-I-like-accordion sound. This was just their second gig in London this year and despite getting almost no radio air play in the UK, loads of people in the crowd sang along. This bodes so well for the future and I look forward to when I’ll have to queue for hours to get tickets to see them in Wembley.
In the next month you can find them in the Ukraine, Russia, Spain and Germany before they head to the States for a run of gigs across the southern states ending on 8 December.