Sunday, October 09, 2005

Orang And Tea At Mona Cafe

Go for too long without seeing music shows at Tokyo cafés, and I start getting seriously nostalgic for evenings past. I like to see shows at small, warmly lit cafés like the Ikenoue Bobtail, Shimokitazawa Mona Records, and the Kichijoji Mandala.

There’s, of course, an undeniable thrill in going to a major club like the Club Quattro or the Liquid Room and seeing the big audiences and feeling their excitement. But café shows have their virtues too. The atmosphere is relaxed—there’s no security team herding the crowd, or making sure everyone's following the rules. You order your drink and take a seat in one of the sofas, and you know or recognize many of the several dozen people in the audience.

The bands playing aren’t trying to make it professionally for the most part, though it’s more than a hobby. After a band’s set, you can always chat with its members—the café is so small, you will bump into them whether you like it or not.

And that’s the way it was when I went to see a few bands play at the Mona Records in Shimokitazawa on Sunday night. I got to the café early to claim a sofa right in front of the stage (the one drawback of a café show is that if you don’t find a place to sit, the standing space is usually pretty cramped). The show opened with two good guitar pop bands: the Sweet Onions, and Humming Parlour, a duo consisting of two friends of mine.

Sometimes at these café shows, however, you run into a band that ought to be famous and playing at the big venues, because they are so wonderful and solid. The third act, Orang, was one such group. Orang is a guitar pop band led by singer and guitarist Yasutaka Yoshiara, formerly of a group named airplane rider, and once counted as members two ex-advantage Lucy musicians: drummer Kaname Banba, and the late Takayuki Fukumura, the guitarist. Now Yoshiara and bassist Toshiya Kojima play rarely (their last show was in November), assisted by guest musicians.

Listening to them at Mona made me wish they could play more often and release some albums too. Their show lifted my spirits. It was one of those shows that made me realize that I didn’t just dream up the great guitar pop performances I’d witnessed in Tokyo in the past: some of those bands, like Orang, are really outstanding. Osamu Shimada of Swinging Popsicle played lead guitar tonight, and having run into the mild-mannered musician mostly off stage at other people’s shows recently, I’d forgotten how fiery and intense his solos can be, until tonight.

The last band, Tea, mixed together rock & pop, R&B, and bossa nova sounds, and were great too. I loved the vocalist (photo at the top), singing and dancing like an American soul music star, and wearing a tight denim mini-skirt and a bright pink T-shirt that had a design saying ‘wire hanger’ on the chest that curved dramatically.


On the way to the show, I ran into an autumn festival in Sangenjaya. Men and women wearing matching, brightly-colored coats with the names of their towns printed in big Chinese characters on their back carried portable Shinto shrines through the streets. It’s something you see all across Japan at this time of the year, the season of the rice harvest, and is supposed to bring the people of the town together. But my barber told me now some of the towns don’t have enough young people to carry these shrines, so they have to find people from other towns across the city to help them out. That's another sad consequence of Japan’s aging and shrinking population.

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