Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Advantage Lucy at the Festival of Light

advantage Lucy

On December 23, which is the Emperor’s Birthday holiday in Japan, advantage Lucy played two sets at the ‘Festival of Light’ in Adachi Ward (a ward is like a city district). This was the third year that the Tokyo pop group appeared at this free event, and though I missed last year’s show I did make it to the one two years ago, and had fond memories of it.

Going again to this event I remembered what I liked about it—the atmosphere is familial and relaxed, taking place in a public park whose trees have been lit up for the holidays. People of all ages sit outside in the chilly evening to watch the shows, while kids run around the stage and hide behind the illuminated trees. Encircling the stage are food stalls, whose shopkeepers call out, between breaks, what they are selling.

There’s also the wonderful feeling of anomaly of seeing advantage Lucy, one of Japan’s great bands, playing on the same stage as children’s electric piano groups, senior citizen choruses, and so on. On Friday night, they played first at a park near Ayase station, and the performers that went before them were called the Beautifuls, who described themselves as “Japan’s #1 Hustle Salaryman band” (unfortunately, I missed them). And after advantage Lucy's second set, which was at a park in Takenotsuka, a troupe of high school hip-hop dancers took the stage (for the finale these hipsters danced in Santa outfits).

One other nice thing about this event is that advantage Lucy’s music matches perfectly the feel of the wintry Tokyo evening. Maybe it’s singer Aiko’s voice, which is pure and crystalline, like the icy nighttime air. It also helps that they play their most festive, holiday-like songs such as “Hello Mate” and “Weekend Wonder”. During their second set they did a very slow, gorgeous rendition of their ballad “Today”.

At one point there was a little girl in front of me wearing a sky-blue down jacket standing transfixed by advantage Lucy’s show. Her expression, as she looked at the musicians and the happy audience, was somewhere between curiosity and puzzlement. I wondered whether one day, just maybe, she too might be playing music on that stage.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Vasallo Crab 75; Cerebral Vs. Physical Shows

Vasallo Crab 75

Thursday night’s show at the Shibuya Eggman looked promising on paper, and I was looking forward to it: it featured Vasallo Crab 75, an indie pop/funk band I’ve written about many times before, as well as Shugo Tokumaru, the internationally respected alternative music guitarist, and the Tenniscoats, a guy-girl duo that came highly recommended by Tokyo Gig Guide.

It turned out to be an interesting event, but also one that made me think about the True Essence of a good live show. Vasallo Crab 75 played last, and there was a big divide between their energetic, physical set, and the much more cerebral performances of the two acts that preceded them, the Tenniscoats and Shugo Tokumaru. Those latter two’s attitude toward a live show seemed to be, ‘we will now create beautiful, innovative sounds for you, and we won’t move around that much on stage or do much else besides play our instruments, but we hope you will enjoy the music for its own sake’. Tokumaru, in fact, asked for the stage lights to be darkened so that he could barely be seen, and didn’t say much other than some nearly inaudible mumbled words at the start.

And indeed, the Tenniscoats and Tokumaru both played compositions that were admirable for their adventurousness and beauty (in particular, I found it remarkable the way that Tokumaru would seamlessly switch from jazz styles to classical to Latin to trash culture pop to create his own sound). These guys seemed like musicians’ musicians. The problem is, I’m not a musician, and as a regular live-house-going music fan, I found that the earnestly played, innovative music made me sleepy after a while. Maybe the venue was part of the problem. I felt this type of music might work better where you could relax and listen, like a cafĂ©, or maybe played somewhere that is beautiful such as a cathedral or an outdoor natural site, rather than a basement live house.

In the end, though, live music is entertainment, and I need an ingredient in addition to the music itself to be entertained. I want to see that the musicians are into their songs, like it when they hop around and dance on stage, and I appreciate it when they make an effort to draw the audience into their music. If not for those things, is it even worth paying money and sacrificing an evening to see a band play live? Every band I go to see often is full of life on stage, though each in its different way. Vasallo Crab 75 certainly is, and was at the Eggman show, six guys that are totally into their music, but at the same time want the audience to get into the songs and dance along to them.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Automatics & Ron Ron Clou At Red Cloth

I’m pretty sure I was the only foreigner at the Shinjuku Red Cloth on Saturday night, and I think I was the oldest guy in the club as well. I stood out in a big crowd of late teen to early twenty-something Japanese music fans, many of whom seemed to be too young to have realized that chain-smoking has its consequences down the line—the hall was like a smoke pit. I wasn’t feeling too well, maybe I had come down with something due to the sudden winter chill in Tokyo, and about five minutes into the show I had grim visions of becoming a weird foreigner who fainted in a packed rock club.

In other words, conditions weren't perfect at the Red Cloth, but I’d seen worse, and in any case I had a mission that made me stick it out: to see the band Automatics for the first time.

Ron Ron Clou

The Automatics are one of the oldest and best bands on the great indie label K.O.G.A. Records. Another K.O.G.A. band, Ron Ron Clou, is a trio that plays retro sounding rock. Add the female vocalist Momoko Yoshino to Ron Ron Clou, have Yoshino write all the songs, and you get the Automatics.

At the Red Cloth show, Ron Ron Clou played a long set first, and when they were done Yoshino joined them to do a 15-minute show as the Automatics. Although neither Ron Ron Clou nor the Automatics is that well known even in Japan, the two have a small but devoted following, as you could see when they played. About a half-a-dozen girls hopped happily to the songs during Ron Ron Clou’s set, and when the Automatics started the rank of hoppers spread sideways so that most of the audience members in the front were bouncing up and down while the Automatics did their five songs.

Ron Ron Clou does gigs every once in a while in Tokyo, but the Automatics hardly ever play—as far as I know this was there first show in more than a year—and that boosted the club's excitement level. I liked both bands. Ron Ron Clou is a good combination of people: a thin sex symbol singer/guitarist (one girl in front of me videotaped him during the whole show, probably in an unofficial capacity), a bespectacled, big curly haired comedian on bass, and a super-calm but skilled drummer (he also helps out Swinging Popsicle).

The Automatics

Momoko Yoshino of the Automatics, meanwhile, is a remarkable singer because her voice is the most nasal, whiney-sounding I’ve ever heard, yet it sounds great. In person, she was a charming woman with short hair and a constant, big dimpled smile, and that unusual voice of hers was big, both when she sang and when she talked. The songs she writes have a 60’s rock feel, with a pinch of rockabilly tossed in (indeed, the guitarist and bassist of Ron Ron Clou both played Rickenbackers and Yoshino played some sort of Gibson ES guitar).

The Automatics played all my upbeat pop favorites—“Automatic Eraser”, “Goodnight My Sweetheart”, “Sweets Can Save Us” and “Yesterday’s Children” (most of these songs are in the Automatics’ classic album Quietude)—and every time Yoshino announced the next song, the crowd ooh-ed in appreciation. The show was much too short, but as it often happens by the end all my feeling of malaise had melted away and I headed out to the wintry streets of Shinjuku feeling rejuvenated.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Band To Watch--Contrary Parade

If the independent (indie) music scene can be defined as something that is completely contrary in spirit to the 3,000-yen-a-CD-charging, copy-control-CD-inventing Major Record Labels, then maybe its truest expression can be found in demo-CDs. Outside of Tokyo music clubs you sometimes see musicians passing out these disks, which they burned themselves at home and whose covers they also designed and printed themselves, in hopes that giving them to show-goers would leave a bigger impression than merely handing out flyers. Or, often bands that are just starting out bring their demo-CDs with them to shows and sell them for about the price of the blank disk. It’s a way for bands to get their songs listened to by strangers in the big wide world, one disk at a time.

Unfortunately, to be honest, many of these demo-CDs aren’t that good. You don’t generally get great music for free. But at times, miracles happen. Which brings me to a band with the unusual name of Contrary Parade.

I’d heard a song by Contrary Parade called “Happy End” in the great Bluebadge Label compilation CD guitar pop crazy!, enjoyed it, and wondered who these guys were. Several months later, in a conversation with a fellow music fan this band’s name came up, and this fan said he had bought a demo-CD of theirs. I told him I liked “Happy End” and would be interested in buying their CD too. He said the band is based in Osaka but he would e-mail them to see if they would send me a copy of the CD.

A little later he e-mailed me to say that when he told Contrary Parade that I wanted a copy of the demo-CD, they replied, “It makes us very, very happy to hear that he wants it, so, of course, we will send it to him”. In a couple of weeks I found in my mailbox the envelope containing the CD, with a note from the band saying: “We pray that this CD-R arrives at your place alright, and gets put into your audio player alright, and the speakers produce its sound alright, and that you like it alright.” And—I did!

The sound that came out of the speakers hooked me immediately—bright and ascending guitar chords, a piano, and a female voice that was passionate in a warbling way. The first song on the disk lasted six minutes and a half, audaciously long for a demo-CD, but I liked them even more for that. There’s a joyful and relaxed quality to this band’s pop music, similar to that of other great Japanese bands like the Waffles and Ku-ki Ko-dan.

I’m not sure what good it does for me to tell you about this band, whose CD I found almost by chance even living in Tokyo. It probably wouldn't be easy to track down their songs outside of Japan. But, one justification for my writing this is that, if Contrary Parade ever makes it big, I can say later that you heard about them here first. So, remember that name. Maybe one of these days they might put up a song sample or two on their website so you can judge for yourself. In the meantime, I urge you to get a copy of guitar pop crazy!, a compilation of many neat bands by a neat label that truly embodies the indie spirit.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Swinging Popsicle & "Hirata Family Festival"

Swinging Popsicle

The first snow of the winter fell in Tokyo on Sunday night, tiny and lonely specks through an icy sky, but inside the Club 251 in Shimokitazawa the temperature and atmosphere were warm. It was the night of the "Hirata Family Festival", named for Hironobu Hirata, bassist for Swinging Popsicle and Auroranote. Featured were those two groups, plus the band of the comedy duo Up Down, for whom Hirata is a producer. Hirata, skinny and handsome, polite, a guy who speaks impeccably proper Japanese, played bass for all three bands, and seemed to love every minute of the event.

Swinging Popsicle, the first up, was sensational as always in their strangely understated way. The pop band isn’t flashy, but their shows stay in the mind. One secret is the singing by Mineko Fujishima, a vocalist I think of as a Soul Diva in the body of a petite Japanese woman. Her mature, low voice seems to stretch out and fill up the live house. Fittingly, colorful little stars adorn the guitar strap of this star songstress. On stage, she stands, tiny, between Hirata and the guitarist Osamu Shimada, both of whom play with the controlled fire of real professionals. At the end of their set, Fujishima and Shimada said ‘gambatte’, meaning something like ‘give it your all’, to Hirata, who had two more sets to perform.


The volume went up a few notches as the second band, Auroranote, started with their lively blues rock. These guys are attracting a small following of girls who, during certain songs, dance and shoot up their arms altogether at key song moments. I’ve seen this before with other bands too, and have always wondered how the girls manage to coordinate their moves, and whether someone came up with the choreography or it just evolved on its own.

I was standing toward the back of the hall and there was one girl in front of me who was like a lone chick separated from the brood, dancing alone away from the rest of her group, who were closer to the stage. But she still thrust her arm up at all the right times along with the rest of the team.


The final act, Up Down, was the part-time musical unit of a comedy duo, with members of Swinging Popsicle and Auroranote helping out. Their banter and jokes between songs were as entertaining as the songs themselves, if not more so, they being comedians after all.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Upcoming Tokyo Shows - December 2005

December promises to be a great month for rock shows in Tokyo, as bands squeeze into their schedules their final gigs before 2005 comes to a close. In the past a couple of people have asked me to tell them about good shows that are coming up, so here's a list of events I will either definitely go to or will try my hardest to see:

DECEMBER 11 - Swinging Popsicle, Auroranote, Up-Down at Shimokitazawa Club 251

This event is called "Hirata Family Festival", a reference to Hironobu Hirata, who plays bass for both pop band Swinging Popsicle and rockers Auroranote, and is a producer for Yoshimoto Kogyo comedy duo/musical unit Up-Down. In other words, he's the star of this event, which should have something for everyone.

DECEMBER 13 - Advantage Lucy with Milco and No Stars Innovation at Shimokitazawa Club Que

Lucy's last show of the year as a full five-piece band.

DECEMBER 15 - Mono, Kinski, midoriyama at Shibuya Club Quattro

I've never had a chance to see "melodic instrumental noise unit" Mono, but have wanted to for a while.

DECEMBER 16 - Ricarope at Udagawa Cafe Sweets

I've written about a past show by this soulful pop singer/pianist here.

DECEMBER 17 - Automatics and Ron Ron Clou at Shinjuku Red Cloth

Two great K.O.G.A. Records pop-rock bands. The Automatics is the members of Ron Ron Clou plus female singer Momoko Yoshino.

DECEMBER 18 - SGT, Afterpilot and others at Shibuya O-Nest

Two nice alternative rock bands.

DECEMBER 19 - Travelling Panda, others at Shimokitazawa Mona Records

Afrirampo and Watusi Zombie are also playing at the Daikanyama Unit this night, but I think I will go to see jazzy, funky pop band Travelling Panda, because they play live only rarely but are great when they do.

DECEMBER 22 - Vasallo Crab 75, Shugo Tokumaru, Tenniscoats at Shibuya Eggman

More on Prince-influenced guitar pop band Vasallo Crab 75 here. More on guitar noise wizard Tokumaru here. More on delicate piano pop duo Tennicoats here. This should be a musically satisfying show.

DECEMBER 23 - Advantage Lucy at Motofuchie Park "Festival Of Light"

Every winter, the trees in Motofuchie Park in Takenotsuka are strung up with festive holiday lights, and a small musical event is held to celebrate the light-up. Maybe because Lucy guitarist Yoshiharu Ishizaka is from Adachi Ward, where the park is, advantage Lucy has been invited to play at this event every year since 2003.

I missed last year's festival but went to the one in 2003, and it reminded me of amusement park show scene in Spinal Tap. Just as in the movie Spinal Tap shared the stage with puppets, playing right before Lucy at the festival was a group of child keyboard students. Being a park, the ground was muddy; behind the stage was a big poster for the event in bright red, like a Chinese Communist assembly. And being an outdoor event in winter, it was freezing.

Still, the band playing was advantage Lucy, meaning the music was lovely, and making the trip all the way up to Takenotsuka completely worthwhile. As it will be this year! Lucy will be playing as a three-person acoustic group, and the show is free.

DECEMBER 27 - Orange Plankton at Roppongi Morph

The last show of the year for piano pop quartet Orange Plankton, one of my favorite Tokyo groups.

Also playing this night is a group called Klik, with advantage Lucy's Aiko featured as a guest vocalist, at the O-Nest. That one sounds interesting too.

DECEMBER 28 - Plectrum and Toshiaki Yamada (of Gomes The Hitman) at Shimokitazawa Mona Records

Power pop quartet Plectrum is one of my favorite live bands in Tokyo, and they are great both when they rock hard at a live house and when they go acoustic at a place like Mona Records.

Beautiful voiced Yamada (I once described his voice as being like smooth calvados) plays emotional pop music for grown-ups.

DECEMBER 29 - K.O.G.A. Cover Night 2005 at Shimokitazawa Club Que

An interesting looking event featuring several cover bands consisting of professional musicians. I'm going to see Tennoji Fanclub, a Teenage Fanclub cover band consisting of "Norman" Takata (of Plectrum), "Raymond" Ishizaka (of advantage Lucy), "Raymond" Fujita (of Plectrum), "Gerard" Chigasaki and "Brendan" Kadota (of Ron Ron Clou).

DECEMBER 30 - The Kitchen Gorilla, Tokyo Pinsalocks, others at Shibuya O-Nest/O-Crest

Two excellent girl vocalist groups I've discovered recently, playing at the same event. Exciting!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Kitchen Gorilla's My Voice

I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to The Kitchen Gorilla’s new mini-album since buying it a week ago at the Tokyo rock trio’s show. But the number is very high. A clear indication of my rapturous love for this new CD, my voice, can be found in my iPod, which shows that I listened to one song in the album SEVENTEEN times in a single day. These part few days I might have looked like I was toiling down here on earth, but in reality I’ve been way up high in Kitchen Gorilla heaven, and I haven’t come down yet.

My voice opens with a chord that feels as dramatic as the ones that begin “Purple Rain” or “A Hard Day’s Night”. Drums pound like a quick heartbeat. The guitar rock is simple—the band once said their songs use only the most basic chords, and they make up for the simplicity with abundant spirit—but stays in the mind. And then there’s singer Kayo’s high voice, which I described in an earlier post as seeming to have a life of its own, a flirtatious Voice Being that might walk away from its owner.

In fact, my voice and another mini-album released earlier this year, One, are actually a two-part work that talks about Kayo’s voice, and how she nearly lost it when she developed a polyp in her throat that she underwent surgery last autumn to remove. The lyrics aren’t obvious; if you weren’t told so, you wouldn’t know that’s what inspired them. But sometimes, the words hit you, astonishing in their painful directness. She sings, for example, in “My Little World”: “If I could blame this suffering, that tangles and flows, on someone else/ would this red pain that flows down fade at least a little?” In the title track, Kayo sings: “I’ll sing as many times as I can/ so don’t disappear/ this, my voice”. Words like those reveal the human being behind the high-pitched voice.

For all that, my voice isn’t at all a dark-sounding album. The third song, “Sensation”, for instance, is a great spirited rocker in which Kayo sometimes nearly barks the lyrics. “TKG”, the fifth tune, is the song I listened to seventeen times in a day, and is a minute and a half of super-concentrated rock ‘n’ roll energy. It is about the band (the title is an abbreviation of the band’s name) and how they want to “sing songs that are overflowing with love”.

Listening to songs like “TKG”, “my voice” and “Sensation”, I recall shows of their I’ve been to, like last Friday’s, where as she sang Kayo’s eyes turned watery and glimmered (she said later that singing that night made her so happy she wanted to cry); the female drummer, U-co, pounded the drums with an expression of utter concentration, as if in a trance; Coufull, the guitarist, spun around playing his riffs, like he was in his own world, though of course he was intensely connected with the rest of the band.

It’s only by coincidence that I learned about The Kitchen Gorilla: they had a song in a compilation album I bought, and I liked that song enough that I decided to check them out live. Now I’m hooked, and honestly, it makes me UNHAPPY that it is hard to find this group’s music even in Japan and nearly impossible to buy their stuff abroad. I intend to work to fix this, so that those interested can at least hear samples of this fabulous band’s music.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Shugo Tokumaru Interviewed

Shugo Tokumaru, Japan's super-shy musical Renaissance man, has been interviewed by David Hickey for Japan Times. It's a great story, take a look. David also writes for badbee.net, a site I admire. Shugo is playing at the Shibuya Eggman with Vasallo Crab 75 and Tennicoats on December 22--that's one of the not-to-be-missed shows this month!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Kitchen Gorilla Nearly Loses Voice

My first show back in Tokyo was The Kitchen Gorilla at the Shibuya Lush on Friday night to celebrate the release of their new mini-album. Such shows are called reco-hatsu, short for record hatsubai kinen, and they are festive events that fans flock to see. And I’m definitely a fan of this rock trio with a funny name—I’m becoming a bigger fan by the day.

Their new mini-album is called my voice. The voice it refers to is Kitchen Gorilla singer Kayo’s—info I read about the album says that she underwent surgery last year to remove a polyp in her throat that threatened to take away her voice. Heavy stuff for anyone, but especially for the vocalist of an up-and-coming rock band. The songs in this new CD touch on this experience.

The surgery was a success, thankfully, and I’m very glad for that, because I love Kayo’s singing. She’s one of the Japanese female singers whose voices I adore. Others are…advantage Lucy’s Aiko’s, for sure. Spangle call Lilli line’s Kana Otsubo’s, and Orange Plankton’s Yumi’s too. (In one of those mind-blowing developments that sometimes unfolds in life, advantage Lucy’s Aiko told me recently that she read about Orange Plankton here in Japan Live and looked up the band’s sample MP3s on their website. She liked it—the singer has a pretty voice, Aiko said. One of my grand dreams now is to organize an event featuring both of these two great bands.) Asako Toki, formerly of the Cymbals, has a beautiful voice, and so does a solo artist I like called Ricarope.

In short, there are many girls whose singing I dig, but Kayo’s is high up there. Hers is high-pitched, coquettish, and animated, like the voice will separate from her body and run away on its own.

How wonderfully she used that voice again in the Lush show! The band played mostly songs from the new album, ones I’d heard for the first time, but despite my unfamiliarity with the tunes I loved every minute of the show. As I’ve written before, there’s something different and outstanding about The Kitchen Gorilla. Listening to a good song of theirs for the first time after putting up with the bland fare of other bands’ music at shows is like finding a piece of pearl on a Tokyo street.

After the encore, Kayo said ‘love you’ in English to the audience. She also said the band’s going on a national tour with about a dozen stops, and jokingly asked everyone in the audience to go to at least five of those shows. That, unfortunately, probably won’t be possible for me, however much I like the band, but I’ll certainly try to make it to their gig next Friday at the Shinjuku Red Cloth.


By the way, the Lush, the new club where the band played, is THE hardest live house to find that I've ever been to in Tokyo, tucked away in the basement of a nondescript building in an obscure alley in Shibuya.