Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mime, Funky Dancer, Vasallo Crab 75

It is pretty unusual for a Japanese woman, who is a mime, to do her act during a rock show, at a club in Shimokitazawa, right? I'm beginning to become unsure about these things. I've certainly seen stranger stuff.

In any case, the female mime was part of Vasallo Crab 75's 'one-man' musical extravaganza earlier this month that I'm now time-traveling back in my head to write about. I was really impressed by the mime—the only image I had of mimes before was of those white-face-painted guys in striped shirts patting imaginary walls in the air, the kind of thing they parody in Hollywood movies. This mime was dressed in fairly ordinary earth-toned clothes, and even spoke a bit when not in her act. She mimed along to Daisuke Kudo's solo acoustic guitar, and the cool thing was that it was an all-body performance: the legs, arms, head, neck, eyes, mouth all working together to create imaginary action. I wonder if there's an active mime community in Japan? Maybe one day this site will change to Japan Mime...

Vasallo Crab also got a funky dancer to shake her body on stage along with a couple of their songs, and the beginning of the show started with a recording of the choral part of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. It went on far longer than I expected, they played about 10 minutes of it, including the solos and the grand chorus, before they came on stage in their pimp/glam costumes, to play some funky rock under a spinning disco ball. So over the top, to choose as your stage intro the 9th Symphony's chorus, but that's Vasallo Crab 75, tongue-in-cheek, funny, but also one of Tokyo's best live bands I know.

Vasallo Crab 75 started out as two shy friends from high school who recorded atmospheric indie pop songs at home. Now, many years later, they are six guys who expertly energize the audience, with a music that's a combination of pop, rock, funk, and anything else the members like, including Yasuhito Kawabe's violin Bach solos and keyboardist Akihiro Yoshida's jazz improvisation (and the band played a Michael Jackson cover that night because his passing was recent, and vocalist Kudo grew up listening to Jacko).

You never know quite what will come out of a VC75 gig, but one thing you can count on hearing at their big shows is a song called “Vicious Circle”, which is one of their best and also one of my favorite Japanese pop tunes of this young century. It was one of the last songs that Kudo and his old high school friend Takayuki Fukumara made together before Fukumura passed away, and that simple, unforgettable guitar line was a creation of Fukumura's (he was a master of simple guitar licks that stay in your mind—the incomparable guitar intro to advantage Lucy's “Red Bicycle” was his, for instance). Below is a video of “Vicious Circle” performed at another place.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Hyacca, Cottonioo, 10,000 Yen Encore Etc. At Koenji Roots

Saturday night was one of those evenings when I was forced to choose between two equally compelling possibilities of live music entertainment, with one of those options probably being much more promising on the pleasing-eye-stimulation front—that was the futurepoplounge event at the Shibuya O-Nest, featuring among others the sexy dance and song troupe The Lady Spade as well as beauties such as Marino and Eel. In the other corner was the post-punk party organized by Call and Reponse Records' Ian Martin, who, as he does every few months, brought together his favorite indie groups, most of whom I'd never heard of before, for an evening of aural adventure and bacchanalia at a dingy Koenji club of his choice. The former, the O-Nest event, was certainly tempting—one of the performers was Frenesi, whose recently released album Cupra I love—but I'd seen most of these people before. And I felt I was overdue for another Ian-organized Koenji experience. So, I got on the Yamanote line to Shinjuku, transferred to the Sobu line to Koenji, got out of the north exit to head to a funky alley of bars, food joints, and 'health' parlors decorated in pink and other pretty pastels, until I was at the Okinawa-themed building that housed the Club Roots.

Right away I was glad I was there—there was that Koenji live vibe, where it's obvious everyone is there because they like the music and are in search of new sounds, and at the same time there's a community feeling and a lack of nervousness about foreigners (the event was organized by one, after all). These guys seemed polite—there were little 'excuse me's when they had to walk through tight space in the audience section. I got the feeling that this was for the most part a college-educated, intellectual, petit-bourgeois crowd (some bands in Tokyo are proleterian, as are their fans—some of those I'm crazy about too; maybe one of these days I'll write about this divide).

Act one was Mir, who I'd seen before, a trio featuring a girl wearing a bunny rabbit headress and using a carrot antenna. Self-described as new wave/experimental, they were an eccentric, minimalist ensemble that played forlorn-sounding tunes. But at the end of the set they all came down off the stage and led the audience into a conga line.

Next was a lovely duo called Cottonio, two girls in tropical shirts with pink feathers in their hair, who created with guitar, bass, wooden synthesizer (?) and do-re-mi carpet what sounded like Hawaiian or exotica on hallucinogenics. I really liked them.

The last three acts were sort of a blur, though they were all excellent, playing energetic alternative music with fast, challenging rhythms and unusual chords. Indie rockers Owllights had a super-skinny vocalist who liked to jump into the audience pit; the Mornings were described by Ian as “the wildest, noisiest, and most athletic live experience in Tokyo” and indeed had head-bang-inducing virtuosic prog/punk techniques; Hyakka, 'a Hundred Mosquitoes' from Fukuoka was similar to the Mornings, but with a more punk grounding and male-female vocals. They were great, and made me start fantasizing about a trip to the southern, Kyushu city of Fukuoka to check out the scene, not to mention the local gourmet offering such as tonkotsu ramen, mentaiko pollock roe, food stalls in general and shochu. Hyakka's encore was a rousing punk number that got the already overexcited male portion of the front row audience into a frenzy of friendly slam-dancing, and for once I was very sympathetic to the physical outburst.


The Mornings


Probably by coincidence, every band except Cottonio included a single female member, the drummer in the case of Owllights and the Mornings.

Ian said, by the way, that if the show wasn't done by 10PM the club would charge a 10,000 yen fine, and the Hyacca show did put the finishing time after ten, meaning it may have been a 10,000 yen encore. Well, to me it was worth more than $100, but I wasn't the one paying it, and I'm not sure whether the organizer got the fine in the end and if so, what he thought of it once he was sober again the day after the show or so...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

You Should Have A Band Like Yuyake Lamp In Your Life

I went to see a show in Kyoto, in a part of town away from the temples and tourists, at a cafe on a big street that could have been on any city in Japan. From the cafe's window you could see the auto parts shop Autobacs; just down the street was a Jusco supermaket; this was an ordinary man's Kyoto. I was in a strange town again to see Yuyake Lamp on the road.

When this band was called Orange Plankton, I followed them way down south to Nagasaki and Okinawa. When they quit and then were reborn as Yuyake Lamp, I crossed a sea to see them play in Taiwan. And it's a rare thing for me to miss them in Tokyo.

In other words, I'm a devoted fan. Maybe you haven't heard of them—they've released a number of albums and done a lot of shows, but have never really hit the big time. Their membership has dwindled over the years, so that now it's basically just vocalist Yunn and whichever musician accompanies her. But in my mind they are one of Japan's great bands. Their piano pop melodies are always catchy and memorable. The lyrics are pure poetry, and about everything from love and friendship to our planet's precambrian era and the wonders of the human body. Above all, though, there's the vocals of Yunn—with her high, almost child-like voice, she has this way of bringing to life the words she sings.

Here's a video of a show she and flutist Kopan did at a Shinto shrine somewhere (it's pretty good but it shows so little of what a great Yuyake Lamp show is like...):

For a select few, Yuyake Lamp's music seems to have the ability to stimulate a nerve that controls the tear ducts. Someone at their Sendai show, part of their current national tour, commented that the joy of seeing them again and the emotion of the music caused her to cry. A friend I saw after their Tokyo gig said she was in tears from the first song to the last. I also felt the water well up at the first song of that show, when they played a tune called “Nami Wo Nuu Kaze Yo Te Yo” from the album Yuyake Ballad, a rarely-performed classic that I like to think of as extraterrestrially inspired, because it's hard to imagine such a strange, slow, beautiful music being germinated in the human mind...

Having said all this, if you do give Yuyake Lamp a listen and the music doesn't do it for you, that's okay. Tastes differ. But what I want to say is, you should have a band like Yuyake Lamp in your life. If you are alone in thinking a band or musician is genius, you are right, ignore the others. If a band's music makes you happy, it's the right thing. And that's the sort of band Yuyake Lamp is for me.