- The Real Thing
- Transforming local clubs into Euro-flavored beatnik bars, the -King Cartel- pushes the Neon City -sound- into the 21st Century
by Lee Abraham
Well-oiled gentlemen in tuxedos and properly powdered ladies in the finest evening gowns are packed into a Las Vegas showroom. The spotlight's tubular beam cuts through lazy swirls of cigarette smoke, a finger of illumination pointing to the stage. Sonny King, the "entertainer's entertainer," has the crowd in the palm of his hand. It's the mid 1970's and even those outrageous hepcats known as the "Ratpack" dig this guy. Frank and Sammy are -both- in the house tonight. After taking his bows during a standing ovation, King calls his young son, Chris, to the stage. The two Kings perform a duet to close the show and they bring down the house.
To say that Chris King has performing in his blood is an understatement. It's encoded in his DNA. King's mom was a beautiful, multi-talented French born dancer and showgirl. His dad is a living legend. The consummate Las Vegas crooner and jazzman, Sonny King was at the peak of his career during the golden era of Vegas showroom entertainment. Dean Martin is Chris's godfather for goodness sakes.
"My biggest influence is my father," says Chris. "I've seen him entertain the best, guys like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and lots of others." As a kid, King not only saw his dad perform, he caught all the big names in their heyday. Proximity to the stars left an impression. "They were amazing entertainers," recalls King. "That's what I remember the most, the way they could capture an audience."
Some folks have that "(?)jene se qua(?)," a magnetic charisma which can't be taught. Mix in the natural born ability to truly -entertain- people and it's easy to see why the next generation King is rapidly moving to the forefront of the local music scene. "Honesty is the most important thing with an audience," says King. "It's basically a relationship at that point. People can tell if a performer is genuine. If they sense -that-, they'll be drawn in to listen to what you're doing."
What King is -doing- these days, both as a solo performer and with his band -King Cartel-, is making some of the most interesting music this wacky town currently has to offer. Let's face it, now in his late twenties, the guy's got a lot to say. His childhood and adolescence are filled with first hand memories of celebrities that most of us only know through TV and the movies. He's felt pain, losing his mother at an early age. A wild streak growing up indirectly lead to a two-year stint in the Marines, an experience that challenged his understanding of himself and the world around him. "I thought it would straighten me out, but in fact, when I finally got out, I had to deprogram myself. That's why I left for Europe."
Almost as soon as he got to Paris King stumbled onto -busking-, a fancy term for playing music on the street for tips, "I saw some guy playing on the street," says King. "He was making some cash and I thought, 'that's cool.' So I went by the Eiffel Tower and played about five hours, made around thirty bucks, and I was like, 'hell yeah!'"
Bouncing around Europe for a year, King performed in the parks, subways and streets of Paris, Spain, Italy and Amsterdam. "I got more in touch with my instincts," says King. "Especially in my songwriting. Although I met a lot of great people playing and stuff, I was by myself a lot and it let me know who I am."
So who is Chris King anyway? Catching just one or two -King Cartel- shows only offers a few pieces of this complex puzzle. One night he's fronting the -Cartel's- trio lineup with Marc Sjafiroeddin on stand-up bass and Don Hartley on drums. Wearing a black silk robe and beat-up straw cowboy hat, King is singing Johnny Cash's -Folsom Prison Blues-. The colorful hand painted dragon on King's guitar, the robe and hat, give King the look of a behind-the-lines Hawkeye Pearce letting off some steam while entertaining the troops. All of a sudden, the tipsy twang of liquored-up country western blues erupts into a roar of quick-tempo rock and roll thunder. The crowd of dancers respond instantly. What was a yee-haw hoe-down just a moment ago became a mind-bending rave of melodic distortion in the blink of a strobe light.
Another show finds King fronting the -Cartel- as a quintet. This time there's a sax (Ken Francis Wenzel) and congas (Damian Drake). The vibe is way trippy with an acid-jazz sophistication. Dressed in all black with a wool cap pulled low, King's eyes are closed. He's holding the microphone to his face and gesturing emphatically, rap master style. Suddenly he' playing a trumpet. The heart of bohemia is now beating through the rhythm section with the pulse of post-bop Miles Davis. On drums, Hartley is a lava lamp of time, liquid and colorful. Sound textures projected from Sjafiroeddin's stand-up bass are a tactile experience. They are -felt- rather than heard. Through their collective energies, -King Cartel-, has transformed tonight's local rock club into a Euro-flavored "Vegas beatnik bar de juer."
Never knowing what to expect at a -King Cartel- show is part of the deal. Pushing himself as well as his audience every time he hits the stage, King embraces constant change. "If I get comfortable in a situation then I'll start thinking, 'how can I push this situation into the future?' When I feel uncomfortable, I get inspired."
"I don't want people to come to my shows and say 'that was a good show,' I want people to come to my shows and say, 'oh shit, I've never seen or heard that before man, that was nuts, it tripped me out, it was -different-," says King, laughing at his own description of the -Cartel- onstage.
When they're not onstage, the band has been in the recording studio. An as yet unnamed debut album is scheduled for release in mid to late spring. Once that's done, it's time for the -Cartel- to hit the rock and roll highway. Plans are coming together for the band's first wave of out-of-town gigs. In the mean time, the -Cartel- continues to build a following with their intense performances at local clubs.
Known primarily as a -live- phenomenon, the CD's release will shift focus from King's shows to his compositions. Understanding that it is just as important to -capture the audience- on record as in the clubs, King has learned to engage the listener's imagination through carefully crafted lyrics. "My approach to songwriting is to create something that's pretty simple, at least on the surface," explains King. "When it comes to imagery, I like to draw maybe the nose and eyes and let the listener complete the face."
The face of the Las Vegas music scene itself will undergo a makeover in the coming year. Most of the top local bands will release a new CD in 1999. That wave of creativity will define the Las Vegas -sound- heading into the new millenium. If the casino sportsbooks were giving odds on which bands will make the most interesting and original music, the smart money would -bet the over- on the -King Cartel- line.
Hartley feels that there's very little gamble involved with his commitment to the -King Cartel-. "I've been in bands with great musicians, -and- ambition, but I didn't really have a great front man," says Hartley. "But that's not an issue any more, we've got all the ingredients now."
Who- The King Cartel
When- Saturday 12/19, 11pm
Where- Serene Lounge, Maryland Square Center
How Much- no cover