Supported by a mid-tempo beat, the balmy trio of KING’s voices cascaded over ethereal synth waves as a sweetly repeated “goodbye” grew in intensity. Setting the tone of the concert, the mesmerizing overture to a mashup of “Mister Chameleon/The Greatest” created a luxurious, dreamy mood that pervaded the L.A.-based band’s 14-song set at U Street Music Hall on Oct. 20.
Illuminated with surreal purple lights, U Street Music Hall was a full house, with dedicated fans standing in line for over two hours in hopes of securing a front-row spot. Producer and arranger Paris Strother sat in the back of the stage with her piano and drums, while her twin Amber and longtime friend Anita Bias carried the front vocals. Rid of the over-the-top solos oft-seen in current pop music, Strother and Bias’s soft hums harkened back to a simpler time of atmospheric, sensuous vocals, reminiscent of Janet Jackson and Sade.
“We were inspired by so many different genres: old, soulful jazz, classical music, R&B. We tried to filter our favorite stuff through our musical soul. We pinched through our dad’s records, hanging around with him and listening to his music. Our strongest influence is any music with a ‘timeless quality,’ not knowing when a song came out,” Strother said.
The Strothers grew up in Minneapolis before attending Berklee College of Music, where they met Bias. In 2011, the neo-soul trio’s debut EP rose from anonymity to immediate praise. Roots bandleader Questlove, Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, Foreign Exchange front man Phonte Coleman and Prince were all smitten with the emerging talent. Rapper Kendrick Lamar even sampled KING’s track “Hey” on his song “Chapter Six.” Although the trio has reached critical acclaim from the R&B community, many are still uncertain on how to classify its music.
“The best one we’ve heard is LSD R&B. We’ve also heard dream pop made in a cloud, with waterfalls, and future soul,” Paris Strother said.
Nieces to Twin Cities bluesman Percy Strother, it is no wonder Paris and Amber developed such a prodigious musical ear.
“We grew up listening to Ellington, Jones, Stevie Wonder. Also, a lot of Donny Hathaway and Joni Mitchell,” Amber Strother said. “Paris and I hung out with classically trained musicians, and we really admired everything about them that was free.”
The band originally set out to release its long-awaited debut LP in 2014; however, “We Are KING” was not released until earlier this year. Its sound is a clear continuation of their 2011 EP “The Story,” reprising all three of the EP’s songs in extended versions. It may have taken some extra time, but good things come to those who wait, as evidenced in the album’s cohesiveness.
“In 2014, the album existed, but something felt incomplete until we added ‘Carry On.’ Self-producing and releasing our debut album, we wanted to live with it forever as something that we would always love. You just know when it’s done,” Paris Strother said.
The set moved to another mashup, “The Right One/In the Meantime,” replete with rousing chord changes and analog synthesizers setting a hypnotic tempo over unhurried tones.
As KING prepared to transition to more upbeat music, the purple beams onstage faded to a pink and blue, complementing all-encompassing utopian feel of the next two consecutive hits. First up was “Carry On,” a bouncy primer on learning how to love the right way, followed by “Red Eye,” a track on exploration and transformation.
“’Red-Eye’ is about breaking barriers. It’s about adventure, global awareness,” Paris Strother said. “Nigeria is a beautiful place to be at night — Zambia, Cape Town — it’s all incredible, just getting away. It’s a song straight from our imagination. It has that dreamy quality.”
Following was a fan favorite, a cover of Zapp and Roger’s “Computer Love,” a layered, enriching reinterpretation to which the audience energetically sang along. The vocalists gently transitioned into “Love Song,” their soft murmurings never becoming fully defined.
“We wanted the album to be: If there were no words, would our music speak, and, if there were no music, would the words be enough?” Paris Strother said. “It’s about love, self-discovery and exploration. We aimed for something that spoke to as many people as possible — organic, connecting, vulnerable.”
Overall, KING seems to combine the best of different eras without simply rehashing them. Floating seamlessly throughout the concert, the trio excelled at reinforcing love as its central theme. Reviving a graceful creativity once only associated with music’s greatest luminaries, KING produces a long-lasting effect on listeners. By the end of the set, the audience found itself imprinted by the band’s unapologetic and rare ability to create a soundscape equally meaningful and transformative as life’s journeys.
“We wanted to express our own path as rulers of our own musical kingdom. That’s how we decided on KING,” Amber Strother said. “We realized the power in it and the challenge of living up to it. One of the first things Prince said to us was — ‘Are you ready to live up to the name KING?’”
With such rich, deep voices and electrifying talent, KING could have taken the easy way out by simply relying on one of many tempting smoke-and-mirrors tricks of its contemporaries, like melodramatic solos or exaggerated instrumentals. Instead, it has chosen to take the longer, complex road of nuance, delicacy and subtlety. KING is not just ready to live up to its name; it already has.