Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Advantage Lucy In Niigata

I went to Niigata over the weekend to see advantage Lucy.

A bullet train took me to the city on the coast of the Sea of Japan, about two hours from Tokyo. It’s famous for three things—rice, sake and fish, and during my stay I had a lot of those three, the holy trinity of Japanese cuisine.

In recent months Niigata has also been in the news as the place where several Japanese people were kidnapped and taken to North Korea a few decades ago (Pyongyang only recently admitted to the abductions). Friends jestingly warned me that if I went to the beach I should watch out for kidnappers from the sea—but walking on the sand next to the dark blue-green sea, my thoughts were more on what fish would come out of the ocean and end up on my dinner plate that night.

Food was on my mind a lot in Niigata. What I ate there felt like the archetype of Japanese food. For example, one night I had flatfish that had been dried for a day to bring out umami, the fifth taste of savoriness, then salted and broiled. Another day I had a Niigata specialty called noppe, a cold stew of diced vegetables and meat that is served at weddings and other celebrations. The food was all made with ingredients that were in season, following a monthly calendar of what fish or vegetable is good when, and prepared in a way that makes flavors like saltiness and umami come out, but not to excess.

I ate happily, but I also ate because there wasn’t much else to do. Niigata is a flat city without any obvious major tourist attractions. A millennium ago, this whole area was either under seawater or swamps—it was filled later to make rice paddies. One interesting district, the ‘old town’, looked like something out of a 1960’s-era Japanese movie, with narrow alleys between square, dark wooden homes.



The club where advantage Lucy played, called Junk Box Mini, was in the old town. The Tokyo pop band was the last group in a four-band set, and performing before them was a good Niigata-based band called Extension58, who are old friends of advantage Lucy.

For advantage Lucy it was the first time to play Niigata in eight years, which meant that the last time they were there they were still called Lucy Van Pelt, hadn’t signed yet with Toshiba EMI, and included as members Takayuki Fukumura and Kaname Banba. They played a lot of old songs, maybe in memory of the show eight years ago, and support guitarist Taisuke Takata used one of Fukumura’s old guitars. They also did one brand-new song that didn’t even have a name yet, but was beautiful and super-catchy—making simple and catchy tunes like that must be one of the most difficult things a songwriter can do, but this band does it consistently.

Standing in the back of a crowd of about 100 enthusiastic fans, what struck me most about advantage Lucy’s show was vocalist Aiko’s voice. It’s light and delicate, yet the voice isn’t quiet, and it projects. There’s a distinct joy in listening to that voice singing at shows, and it makes me think, I'm in the right place.


I spent a bit of time with the band after the show and on the road back to Tokyo, and ate more food. With them, everything was magnified: if, say, raw crab sashimi was tasty, it wasn’t just good, it was always THE BEST THING THEY’VE EVER TASTED. They are also very ordinary Japanese kids in some ways, staying up until dawn playing card games, and then excitedly buying sweets and toys in gift shops the next day. At times like those it’s sometimes hard to see the emotional depth that lead to their creating their brilliant songs, but it’s doubtless submerged somewhere inside, to come out when needed.

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