Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Caraway & Guitar Pop

The Caraway is a Tokyo pop band led by Osamu Shimada, Swinging Popsicle’s guitarist, and they just released their first album, The Caraway. To celebrate its release they headlined an event at the Shinjuku Motion, also featuring Three Berry Icecream, Orangenoise Shortcut and Sloppy Joe.

What struck me most about this event was how many people showed up. It was sold out. Before the show dozens of people lined up at the grimy stairwell leading up to the club. It’s not a big venue at all, holding around a hundred people at most, and the Caraway and others are fairly popular, so maybe it shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise that the place was packed. But compared with punk and other currently popular types of music in Japan, the music the Caraway plays, so-called guitar pop, is a genre favored by a small minority: a bit like people who would name Iceland or Belgium their favorite European country. So, as a fan of Japanese guitar pop myself, it came as a pleasant surprise to see the Motion so crowded with fans it took a big effort to move from one end to the other.

Of course, one of the great, distinguishing things about Tokyo is that for almost any sort of musical genre you can think of, somewhere there are musicians who play it for devoted fans. Hip-hop, country, blues, reggae, grindcore, rockabilly, zydeko, bossa nova, krautrock, you name it. People here like to let the music they listen to partly or wholly define who they are. I guess people do that everywhere, but it seems to be taken to a more extreme level in Japan, for reasons I’m not sure why. (On a related note, the other night I went to a bar where a harem of Japanese belly dancers was putting on a show. They danced skillfully, but also in a studious, decidedly non-flirtatious way.) In any case, the result is that there are groups of people who closely follow works by guitar pop bands and try to make it to their gigs.

(“Guitar pop”, by the way, is a term that doesn’t appear to be used much outside of Japan, and I’ve started to wonder whether it’s a Japanese invention. It’s not in wikipedia, for instance, and it’s not listed as a genre in Live 365 radio. As a description of a type of music it’s pretty vague, referring to bright, guitar-centered pop influenced by British New Wave, Swedish pop and indie pop bands.)

I like going to guitar pop shows because the fans tend to be mellow, classy folks not prone to random drunk violence, and I’ve gone to enough events now that it’s like Cheers: everyone knows my name (or, at least, many do). At the Caraway event, when the first group Three Berry Icecream played, the young daughter of the singer called out to her mom between songs, prompting all the petite ladies in the front of the crowd to smile and laugh the way they would do to a little girl who had just ransacked the closet and came out dressed up in a way she imagined adults consider fashionable.

The event, organized by ultracool indie label Bluebadge, was one of those where I thoroughly enjoyed all the bands that played. A happy discovery was Orangenoise Shortcut, a group whose name I’d heard of but otherwise wasn’t familiar with: the audience seemed to like them as much for their joke-filled banter between songs as their upbeat, sunny songs.

During Caraway’s set, I was reminded again what a natural performer guitarist Shimada is: when the band was asked for a second encore, they hadn’t prepared any songs, so Shimada decided to play a new number from their new album called “The Rainy Day”, and performed it exactly the same way they did earlier in the evening, just because it’s a great song and Shimada wanted to do it again. And everyone loved it again.

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