Saturday, March 13, 2010

Nagira Ken'ichi & Asakusa Jinta At O-West

It's a common belief in Japan that when the weather warms up in spring, the weirdos come out of the woodwork, emerging from their shelters against the cold. Having lived in Japan for a while I have to say there's some truth to this.

During his Thursday night show, folk singer Nagira Ken'ichi talked about one such 'early spring person' he'd met recently. The man, dressed in a salary man outfit, conducted a flag raising ceremony—on the train. He pulled out a Rising Sun flag from his bag, and singing the national anthem—'kii, mii, gaa, yoo'—unrolled the banner. Then, declaring that the flag raising has ended, and again chanting the anthem, he rolled it up again.

Nagira said that everyone on the train except him acted as if this was a normal occurrence, which sounded so Tokyo to me.

Nagira was accompanied by two others, and they all wore cowboy hats—Nagira said he was “born in Asakusa, and grew up in Mexico”—not really true, but maybe a way for him to say how influenced he was by country music. He sang in deep and thick voice black humored songs about subjects such as how expensive funerals are, pinkie-less gangsters and a little girl playing with her older brother's bag of 'white powder'. Nagira is apparently one of the few guitarists in Japan who is adept at Carter Family picking, something I'd never heard of before, which Wiki explains as: “a style of fingerstyle guitar named for Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family's distinctive style of rhythm guitar in which the melody is played on the bass strings, usually low E, A, and D while rhythm strumming continues above, on the treble strings, high E, B, and G.”

In addition to being an underground folk singer, Nagira is an actor, TV personality, comic speaker and essayist. He's also a friend of Asakusa Jinta vocalist and bassist Osho, who Nagira said he often scolds, for reasons not elaborated. I doubt he criticizes Asakusa Jinta about their stage performance, though, because they're terrific.

I've written enough about these guys, in my opinion one of Japan's greatest musical entertainers now, but their show at the O-West was again excellent, explosive, totally involving. They'd put up a huge banner on the back wall, and on the sides of the stage two paper lanterns. The show was to mark the sale of a DVD about their UK tour. And Osho said that the band has been banned from playing in most places in the town from which they get their name, Asakusa—he said the cops are called even if they just set up their instruments outside; maybe some town folks don't like their loudness—but that they found an old hall in the center of Asakusa where the elderly do karaoke now, and they're playing there on April 3. I'll be there.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Tokyo Pinsalocks, Noodles, Kinoco Hotel At The Que

Sunday was girl band night at the Club Que, but the three featured groups had little in common other than that they were all girls.

First up was Kinoco Hotel, AKA "mushroom ryokan" (...OK, not really), a quartet in red, Sgt. Pepper-like coats with miniskirts, whose songs were a throw-back to 60's Group Sounds, surf rock, and kayou hits. They were spirited (both the vocalist and lead guitar dashed into the audience section on separate occasions), skilled at their instruments, and looked great, with short, sharply-cut hair. The singer had a voice like a Golden-gai bar mama's; she called the other band members "employees" while they called her "general manager", of the mushroom hotel.

They seemed to have lots of fans, and the word from the Japan Times is that they're in talks to play at high-profile festivals, so maybe they're rising stars. Personally, I felt the band would benefit from some sort of extra ingredient--the retro 60's thing has been done by others, and wild stage action isn't new either.

Band #2 was Tokyo Pinsalocks, and though I remembered I liked them in previous appearances, this time I was a bit shocked how good they were. Had they changed their style, in a perfect way? Their guitarist quit a few years back, and they've replaced the guitar band sound with this driving, electronics-heavy musical creation of Mac samples, synthesizers, bass and drums. The bassist, in particular, was super-cool, tall as a volleyball player, with two-toned long hair in black and blond. She plucked out repeated, effect-laden parts wearing an expression that was at once expressionless and nirvana. The trio's loud, rainbow outfits were also dazzling on stage. Here's a recent performance by them (though, as always, it loses something in the transfer):

I only caught a few songs of the last band, Noodles. They were great--vocalist Yoko is a Tokyo indie scene demigoddess--but I was pretty tired of the event by then. The Que is a lovely live house, but it's far from the most comfortable spot when crowded, with no space to move. It has to be a band I'm crazy about for me to want to risk a sold-out gig at the Que, but I'm old and jaded.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Japan Kuruu Special At Club Phase

I remember a few years back a Korean all-girl band played in Tokyo, and even though their show was excellent, they looked unhappy later, because they thought the audience didn't enjoy the show that much. And I tried to tell them that wasn't true, the crowd did have a good time, but Tokyo audiences tend to be on the shy and quiet side, and so their enthusiasm might not have been obvious. I don't think they were convinced.

I was reminded of this episode watching Japan Kuruu Special for the second time, this time at the Club Phase in Takadanobaba. Kuruu is an energetic, lively, comedic Osaka band. They do things to an excess, including their huge hair-do's, and the non-stop stage action. It's great entertainment, and it seemed to me hard to imagine people who wouldn't like it, but the Club Phase gig revealed that those people do exist.

There was an insider-outsider thing going on, something I've often seen at live houses. At the front near the stage were the inside people, almost all girls, a fun bunch that sang and danced along to the songs, and occasionally got into a sort of joking, non-violent slam dance. But a few steps behind them, toward the back of the small hall were the outsiders, who didn't know Kuruu, and when I glanced back their expressions varied between mild amusement to apathy. I can't read minds, and possibly some of them enjoyed the Kuruu show, but it did seem like they were biding their time until the more 'serious' bands they came to see hit the stage.

Kuruu are outsiders in any case in Tokyo. They talk and sing in the Osakan dialect. And they have different ideas of what good conversation is—inserting joking exchanges in chats is important for Osakans, but that's not necessarily the case for Tokyoites. So, at one point, Kuruu's vocalist said they would continue playing the same part all night unless everyone in the audience sang along—then, a few moments later, added, “that's a joke; don't take everything we say seriously.” The implication being that Tokyo people don't have a sense of humor.

You also often hear that not a lot of Tokyoites are originally from Tokyo, but that the city is populated by people from all over Japan, whereas most Osakans are really from Osaka. I sometimes wonder whether the regional origins of many Tokyoites account for the shyness of live house audiences, though this is a pretty underdeveloped hypothesis.


This was only my second time to go to the Phase, and I only have dim recollection of my last visit there, probably about five years ago. I don't know much about the town of Takadanobaba either, but I enjoyed the walk from the train station to the club. It's a retro town, like time stopped in 1970, with lots of neon signs in Japanese fonts you don't see that much anymore. A major neon advertisement on the wall of a sinister-looking, dark building was for 'student loans', which I assumed wasn't what you'd usually associate with the term, but instead high interest loans for young students who overspent during their first time away from home, and which the parents are expected to repay. It's a big college student town with many schools, right between sin city Shinjuku and Saitama residents' metropolis Ikebukuro, and also one train stop away from Shin-Okubo, where you get the sensation you are in some other Asian city other than Tokyo, maybe Seoul or Bangkok. The name means the horseback riding grounds of Takata (apparently older Tokyoites pronounce it, presumably correctly, as TakaTanobaba), because that's what was there in the Edo era.