Kula Shaker: Live at Irving Plaza by Otto 'Maharishi' Luck

I used to think that music like Kula Shaker’s brand of raga rock could not be enjoyed without the help of a handful of acid. But this is not the case. Even at their deepest application of Indian mysticism, the songs are extremely accessible, with infectious, winding melodies and steady, pulsating rhythms.

Saturday night at Irving Plaza there were plenty of Buds going down but little else that I could see (or smell). Kula Shaker had the luxury of playing to a packed house to which they delivered an impressive set of polished rock & roll.

Frontman Crispin Mills appeared onstage sporting his new spiky, crop-top hairdo and looking much like a young Richard Hell. In fact, nearly all the members of the British quartet seemed to have changed conspicuously in appearance, with the exception of drummer Paul Winterhart. Keyboardist Jay Darlington has since grown a "big ol’ hairy mustache" (and goatee) and Alonza Bevan’s cherry-red hair has now gone back to its natural shade of brown.

Kula opened with "Hey Dude." It took a few minutes for the sound man to get the mix in gear but from that point on, it was pretty much a consistently good night of music. As one can expect from a band with one CD out, the set consisted mostly of songs from their debut album, with the obligatory addition of the Joe South/Deep Purple cover "Hush."

Crispin Mills -- who, by the way, is the son of Hayley Mills (of Parent Trap fame) -- is all frenzied energy and lanky good looks onstage. He jumps onto Darlington’s Hammond B3, feigns a loss of balance for a moment, and then lands effortlessly back at ground zero. For the show, he had his trademark wah-wah peddle pumping in fine order. In fact -- while he’s no Eddie Van Halen -- he’s a damn good player, particularly on slide guitar, better than one would realize from just listening to the band on CD.

About midway through the set, Mills introduced "Tattva," as a song for "anybody who speaks Sanskrit -- there’s always a few." (Actually, I had thought it was written in Hindi. Oh, what the hell, it all sounds Indian to me.)

I had wondered how well Kula Shaker would pull off their more ethereal, spiritual-sounding numbers. I’ll be damned if they didn’t do it quite well. I don’t know if the background sitar playing was by virtue of one of Darlington’s synthesizers or if Ravi Shankar was offstage somewhere but, nevertheless, "Tattva" came off without a hitch and was, in fact, one of the highlights of the set.

In additional to Deep Purple, Kula Shaker lists the Kinks and the Stones as influences. I should say that it’s been mentioned to me that the recipe seems to have a pinch or two of the Monkees in there as well. Nevertheless, one of the impressive things about Kula Shaker is how well they manage to weave the Indian thing into their music. It’s been done before, of course, but never in a manner where the elements are so clearly defined in the songs and the results so appealing.

Mills’s sources for the material’s Eastern flavor come pretty much direct from the region itself. Starting in 1993, he made three successive pilgrimages to India, visiting cities such as Delhi, Orissa and Calcutta. "In Delhi, I got a job in a temple, general dogsbody, in exchange for food and a place to sleep on the floor," he explains. "The heritage is still alive, you know. Real holy men. Some are bogus dropouts, only after your money. But now and again, if you’re lucky ... you’ll meet someone with real spiritual insight."

Kula Shaker closed the Irving Plaza set with "Smart Dogs," dedicating the song to a special lady, "Planet Earth." It was no surprise that the enthusiastic crowd called them back for an encore for which they played "Into the Deep" followed by the Hindi (I think) tune "Govinda." I believe that precious few people left the club disappointed. In fact, one could say little bad about Kula Shaker. Put simply, they’re a great pop band with a lot of promise, as could be easily witnessed on Saturday night.

Hayley should be proud.

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