Sunday, March 29, 2009

Quinka, With A Yawn At Rain On The Roof

I almost got lost for a second time in a row going to a cafe called Rain On The Roof in Sangenjyaya because, well, the place IS a challenge to find. It's in a narrow alley and there's a tiny sign in front of the entrance that you wouldn't see if you weren't looking for it. But this is at least an interesting neighborhood to get lost in. It's filled with little dining bars that have only a few seats each, places looking like time's stopped in the 1960's, where the 'mama' mixes scotch and water for long-time regulars and that you'd feel strange about dropping by unless you yourself are a regular or are introduced by someone who is. In a side-street off of Route 246 is an old movie theater, Sangenjyaya Central Theater, with big signs in Showa-era font and, its most distinctive feature, on the facade a kappa couple, the male kappa blue and the female kappa pink (kappa are human-like creatures that live in ponds, and drag children into the water and drown them. Watch out for them if traveling with little kids near ponds...).

Rain On The Roof, named after a Lovin' Spoonful song, is a cafe on the 2nd floor of an old building with great wooden ceiling with beams. It has comfy sofas and smells of curry rice, which is supposed to be good. The cafe appears to have been created by a company called Renovation Planning, which transforms old stores and homes into cafes. Here's an up-close picture of the ceiling:

I was there to see an event called 'Waikiki-philia and Cafe Rock', the fifth installment of an event organized every couple of months or by the band Elekibass. It ran from 2:30 in the afternoon to 8:40 in the evening, though I only stayed during the daytime part of the event. The standout act for me was Quinka, With a Yawn, the unit of the female vocalist/keyboardist Michiko Aoki and whoever else she invites to perform together. At this show her side-kick was guitarist Taisuke Takata of Plectrum. I'm a big fan of Quinka—the Quinka album Field Recordings was my favorite CD of 2008—but I'd forgotten until this Sangenjyaya show what a good performer Aoki is. Her singing is unhurried, natural, and she has a way of creating musical space by staying silent and then coming in with her voice, a quirky, normal-person voice that nevertheless has a lot of presence. Quinka played all covers: The Stone Roses' “Ten Storey Love Song”, Unicorn's “Jitensha Dorobou (Bicycle Thief)”, Spitz's “J'taime” and the La's “There She Goes” (a very popular tune in the Tokyo indie pop scene), as well as, a cover of sorts, a song called “Thank You” that she wrote together with her husband Harco for their two-person unit Harqua. Plectrum's Takata teased her, saying she's cheating on Harco by performing the song with him, and she replied that he's also being untrue to his just-married wife by doing this duet, but, joking aside, it was a truly beautiful tune performed by two talented musicians that made me a bit tearful. Harqua...I better check them out.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Round Table Featuring Nino's 'Secret' Live

I hadn't realized this until last night, but the pop band Round Table is a somewhat different entity from the group known as Round Table Featuring Nino. The latter merely adds the female singer Nino to the former, but the two release albums on different labels (Featuring Nino is on Victor Entertainment, while indie Happiness Records is Round Table's label), and Featuring Nino is also a big producer of anime soundtrack songs, something that Round Table itself is, as far as I know, not that big on. In addition, whereas Round Table plays live fairly frequently, mostly in Shimokitazawa, Nino almost never does—in fact, I found out later that the Round Table Featuring Nino show last night was only the second gig ever since Nino joined the group in 2002 (Round Table proper has been around since 1997).

The show was at the Daikanyama Unit, and it was supposed to be a 'secret', free gig—it wasn't listed on the club's schedule or the band's website, and you got tickets by sending in an e-mail to the Round Table website or something. I'm not sure how the process worked exactly because, Japan Live being a Major Player in the Tokyo music scene these days, I was invited to the show...well, no, joking, I just knew someone who could get me into the gig as a guest. The guests had their own section on one side of the floor, divided by a fence, that you got into by flashing your guest pass at the staff and walking a narrow space between the main floor and PA booth.

It was a queer experience watching the show from the segregated 'guest' section. On the other side of the fence, the floor was jam-packed, mostly with people that appeared to be male anime fans; the guest section wasn't crowded, and was mostly musician friends of Round Table, both male and female. And we had a nice view of the stage, something that the main floor guys could only get if they lined up before the show to secure a good spot. But it was they that were really having a great time, despite being herded into a tight, hot, sweat-stinking space—many of them must have been Nino fans for years, seeing her live the first time, finally, so they were excited. I read later on 2 Channel that some of those fans came from places far from Tokyo, a major domestic trip just to see an hour-and-a-half gig, but it was probably worth it for them, because they characterized it with the otaku adjective kami—a 'divine' performance. And they were a super-enthusiastic crowd too, clapping en masse, singing along to the sweet pop ballads, and during the applause before the encore, one of the guys shouted 'so-----re [a call before starting something]', and then, spontaneously, everyone started shouting 'En-core! En-core! En-core!' together. It blew my mind.

For us in the guest section, on the other hand, this was just another free gig thrown by friends, and while the guests must have had fun and enjoyed the music, you felt this sort of social pressure to not go too crazy, to limit yourselves to polite applause, while being free to offer whispered commentary about the show from the point of view of a fellow musician insider.

Nino was good looking, with long, brown, 'shaggy' hair and angular facial features. She didn't exactly take full control of the stage—this was only her second gig, after all—but she did have presence, helped by the audience's overwhelming support and approval of everything she did. The voice was soft and high, and the performance solid, benefitting from the skilled musicians of Round Table. They played about a dozen songs, including for the encore Nino's first hit, “Let Me Be With You”. The gig didn't knock me out like previous Round Table shows, but it was a pleasant affair, especially viewed from the comfortable confines of the VIP section, where we could rattle our jewelry rather than clap along.


Bringing me rapidly down to earth after the gig was the Unit's authoritarian policy of not allowing audience members to stand outside of the club for even a single second to wait for friends to emerge. Supercilious staffers shouted at people to move along, like sheepdogs yapping at their herd. I know the Unit isn't alone in doing this, and I know there are reasons for it—they're afraid that if they let people loiter, they might make noise and annoy the neighbors—but while understanding that, couldn't they be, perhaps, nice about asking people to disperse, rather than acting dictatorially like they have some god-given right to chase people away from a public space? I mean, maybe it's just a job for them, but couldn't they handle things in a way that doesn't immediately dispel the magic of the show?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Name Is The Lady Spade Party

It's hard to beat the Lady Spade.

They dance. They're babes. Their act is like something out of TV re-runs of 60's and 70's spy shows, the jet-set female star laughing theatrically after she completes another impossible mission.

The music is mid-20th century retro—jazzy soundtracks, kayoukyoku, French pop. The big, long-haired, goatee-ed, sunglassed DJ, SLF, also plays the role of an old Japanese cabaret MC, with just the right tongue-in-cheek formal mannerism and winking deference to the performers. Ruby, the Lady Spade's singer, is scripted as the free-spirited prima donna, so never speaks formal Japanese—'arigato' after songs rather than the standard 'arigatogozaimashita'—and she has her four adoring dancers fetch her water when she's thirsty.

I didn't realize until I listened to their debut album, Dial “S” For The Lady Spade (whose release party they held at the Chelsea Hotel in Shibuya), that Ruby wasn't just a singer and dancer, but the super-heroine you call when the problem was serious—the last planetary force field breached, for example—and she would laugh and help out if the project sounded interesting, for a fee. She's a Winston Wolf for global crises. Ruby's also a great driver—she compliments a gaijin-accented guy as being the “world's second best driver”, but on her days off, like any normal girl, she likes to have her admirers buy her things in Ginza and take her out to dinner in Aoyama.

How could I resist any of this???

The Chelsea Hotel event was more like a revue than a regular live house gig, with day-glo-wigged girls in faux-school uniforms and burlesque dancers wandering the floors one second and then performing on stage the next moment. We came out of the two-hour party exhilarated, revived, with a fresh view of the possibilities of entertainment and how it brightens up a dinky basement bar.


Several piko piko pop guys, as well as Patrick of, were in the audience.


The fliers they handed out at the show were great—colorful and well-designed, including several advertising burlesque dance lessons (!). Here are some of them.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kanariya's First Live, At Red Cloth

Three members of the splendid Tokyo band Vasallo Crab 75 have gotten together for a side-project called Kanariya, and they did their first gig at the Red Cloth on Wednesday. They are one of those groups that successful musicians form when they want to try something different from the main act, experiment, go back to the roots, etc. In Kanariya's case, the new thing is old rock: they only did a few songs, but it was a varied set, one tune sounding like primordial 70's punk, another being jazz rock, the finale something that reminded me of Tommy-era Who. I can picture them digging through each others' record collections, jamming those LP-inspired tunes together, and then, deciding, one day—hey, why don't we just make this into a new band?

VC75 are great. Their shows are spectacles that are attracting devoted fans who dance, melodic explosions of funk, pop and occasional electric Bach violin solos. They're playing the O-Crest on March 27 with Pop Chocolat and Chub Du. But I can see how musically-hungry guys would want to try something like Kanariya, to go down a few strange alleys, and share what they've found with a new crowd. At the Red Cloth the audience was sparse. But maybe that's part of the bargain—they're really starting anew, debuting as nobodies, with a sound they hope people will like and find to be fresh. I did.


'Kanariya' sounds like the Japanese word for canary, but the spelling is slightly different from the standard word, which wouldn't have the Y in it. I didn't think to ask them what the name meant, but when I googled it the first entry I found what maybe pointed to an answer. It contained an old Japanese children's tune called 'Kanariya' (an archaic spelling?), and the lyrics sounded like something that could inspire a band name. It goes something like:

The canary that's forgotten its song
Should we abandon it in the hills behind?
No, no, that wouldn't do

The canary that's forgotten its song
Should we bury it in the shrub in the back?
No, no, that wouldn't do

The canary that's forgotten its song
Should we hit it with a whip of willow?
No, no, that would be cruel

The canary that's forgotten its song
Put on an ivory boat, with a silver paddle
And floated in a moonlit sea
Will remember its song.

Maybe? Maybe I'll ask them next time.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Abandoned School Rock, Cramped Cafe Pop

Nostalgia for school days, a quest for more musical performance space, novelty, and Japan's shrinking population seem to be behind an interesting upcoming music festival: Haikou Fes 2009, to be held in an abandoned elementary school in Shinjuku.

I read about it in Mixi's Neo-Underground community, whose members have been long searching for new places to organize rock shows, anywhere other than the tired 'live houses' where bands usually do gigs (and where most have to pay to play). The idea of using retired schoolhouses—called 'haikou' in Japanese—as music festival venues had come up during the initial, fevered discussions in the Mixi group. It looks like that idea at least came to fruition—a first Haikou festival was held last year, and a follow-up event is happening on May 6.

The venue is the former site of Shinjuku Ward Yodobashi #3 Elementary School, which has been converted into an entertainment facility by a performers' organization called Geidankyo. Scheduled to perform are notable musicians including Keiichi Sokabe, Kicell, Harco, and Nisennenmondai (as well as a group called Motallica).

The background to why this event is taking place is that there are lots of deserted, unused school buildings in Japan. As the population here gets older and shrinks in size, there aren't enough kids to fill all the schools. Why not use these haikous for some other purpose, rather than simply let them rot and crumble? That thought has led to events like Haikou Fes at ex-Yodobashi #3 School.

So, if you're into the idea of boogie-ing in the science lab, rocking out in the principal's office or making some noise on top of a teacher lectern, this may be your thing. Personally, I'm not too sure about it—for one thing, the tickets, at 3,200 yen advanced and 4,000 yen at the door, aren't cheap. That's more than for a usual live house gig. Does it cost that much money to rent the school and pay the bands? Also, I get this vague, uneasy feeling that though the festival will aim to project a free, anything-goes vibe, in reality it will be tightly controlled—but I don't have much basis for this speculation. In any case, it will probably be a good photo op.

UPDATE (Mar. 7): The organizer of this event sent me a nice note to say thanks for your interest in the event, that the ticket price is the lowest possible and not profitable, and that the atmosphere of the event will be yurui—loose, relaxed, fun.

I respect the fact that the person cares enough about the event to want to clarify those points.

Thank you. I'm going.


Meanwhile, speaking about festivals, there's a mini one at the Rain on the roof cafe in Sangenjyaya on March 22, featuring several bands including the Waffles, Elekibass and Quinka, with a Yawn, whose album Field Recordings was my favorite Japanese album of 2008. This looks worth going to, though considering that the Rain on the roof is a fairly small venue (I saw Frenesi there) and the bands are relatively popular, it could make for an event where lots of people are cramped into a 'comfortable' cafe space... The good thing is you can go in and out of the cafe if you want to get fresh air. The 'cafe festival' runs from 2 in the afternoon to 9 at night.