Japan Nite 2011: New York

NEW YORK, March 20 – On a quiet Sunday night, a small army of Japanese punk rockers were looking to make some serious noise in Manhattan’s East Village. Japan Nite 2011, the mini music festival, was held at the Bowery Ballroom. Led by Japanese music promoter Audrey Kimura, they proceeded on a three hour music marathon filled with kinetic energy and vitriolic attitude. It was an event not suited for the weak at heart. The small dedicated crowd of punk rock fans played the role of willing victims as Japanese punks literally came crashing down on top of them.

Left to Right: Emi and Busanpa (Zukunasisters)

Zukunasisters, the opening act, was a bit of a surprise because they were not punk rockers at all. They’re a Rhythm and Blues quartet from Tokyo and played a set of soulful tunes and funky numbers. They even include some soul renditions of classic jazz standards like “What a Wonderful World”. It seemed a bit out of place, but Kimura has a reputation for creating very eclectic line-ups for her tours. Having a wide appreciation for music, I really enjoy her curious and exploratory approach to programming.

The band is very accomplished and seems well educated in American R&B and soul. Emi (衣美), the lead singer, has a very throaty tone to her vocals channeling the spirit of Janis Joplin perhaps. On some of their songs like “Soul Train”, she also demonstrated vocal stylings patterned after Arentha Franklin. And Keyboardist Busanpa definitely brought the funk to the show. Like a good southern cook layering too much barbecue sauce on a rack of ribs, she added a funky kick to many of the songs. Her playing was reminiscent of Stevie Wonder in the seventies (à la “Superstition”). The rhythm section was aptly provided by the statuesque bassist Marico and the powerful drummer Akane (茜).

Yuya Matsumura (White White Sister)

Following the rhythm and blues revival, a young electronic punk band named White White Sister took the stage. The duo set up as many laptop computers as standard instruments. Their music is composed mostly of very modern rock flavored melodies and dance friendly beats. Many audiophiles have classified them as a mix of modern rock and electronic music. I would only add: “with potential to be extremely progressive.”

Although the band members have very little stage presence, the on stage musical interaction is quite fascinating. Their performance is a heavy mixture of carefully crafted digital sampling, highly polished electronica, and actual instruments. Yuya Matsumura fills multiple roles including vocalist, guitarist, and programmer. Matsumura is the nerve center of the entire operation. He is flanked by two Apple MacBooks which are pre-programmed to slinging out beats and melody at a quick and ferocious pace. During the performance, he and his drummer Kazumasa Ishii have to accompany the music being played from the laptops. It’s a very difficult task to play with a pre-programmed machine that doesn’t adjust or improvise against your performance. Nevertheless, they manage to weave many interesting and very engaging songs with this cybernetic arrangement.

Matsumura’s emo-ish vocals are very similar to Gregori Chad Petree from Shiny Toy Guns. However, his experimental effects laden guitar playing is more akin to the inventive spirit of Jimmy Page. He’s still a bit raw, but he’s young. Comparisons to Boom Boom Satellites are unavoidable.

In order to provide a visual accompaniment, they have included a VJ in their stage performance named Tajima Kouta. Kouta provides the stunning abstract visual graphics which are projected in the background. They are simple vectors and lines which creates a kaleidoscope of light and color.

Left to Right: Inko and Youkaku (Hystoic Vein)

Perhaps, the first true punk band of the night was Hystoic Vein. They were a straight forward four piece all girl punk band with a set fueled by leather and attitude. It was a simple exhibition of heavy rhythm and shredding guitars.

Much of the entertainment was provided by the charismatic lead vocalist Inko. She was absolutely explosive on stage with Glam rock sensibility. Wearing a furry long trench coat she often performed strange miming dance routines as the band rocked out. Her hand gestures would follow the powerful rhythms set forth by bassist Yukary and drummer Lyn. In the middle of their set, Inko jumped off the stage into the crowd. This surprised both the audience and the venue staff. There weren’t enough people to perform a proper body surf so she raced to the back of the room. There she continued to sing as the crowd followed her around the venue.

I would be amiss if I didn’t mention Youkaku’s amazing guitar playing. She cradles the guitar right in the pit of her crotch and begins to shred like a maniac. Meanwhile the rest of her body is convulsing uncontrollably like she’s having a seizure. She definitely gets down and dirty with her instrument. Youkaku’s one of the few female guitarist that I’ve seen treat her guitar like a masturbatory sex object. It’s incredibly enthralling to watch live. I could probably watch her jam for hours.

Masayo Ishizaka (Lolita No. 18)

The next act was the veteran Oi! punk band called Lolita No. 18. They received the biggest reaction from the audience and definitely had the biggest following. They are mostly known for their high pitch and cartoony antics on stage. This performance was no exception. They provided their signature fist pumping and Oi! chanting tunes. In addition to their material, the band also covered songs like the Buggle’s “Video Killed the Radio Star” and the Ramone’s “Rockaway Beach”. Masayo Ishizaka (石坂マサヨ), the lead vocalist, literally throws herself into the performance. She also swings a pretty mean microphone stand. People in the front of the stage had to duck.

Not to be outdone by her younger compatriot, Ishizaka also leapt into the crowd. She continued to up the ante by climbing the stairs to the balcony and continued her performance from a high perch. The audience absolutely loved her showmanship.

Left to Right: Yasunori Takei, Kazuhiro Momo, and Isamu Fujita (Mo’some Tonebender)

As for the headliner of the night, Mo’some Tonebender took the stage as Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra (“aka the 2001 Space Odyssey opening theme”) was playing over the venue’s speaker system. It seemed hilariously epic. The instigator for much of the humor was bassist Yasunori Takei. He seemed to be enjoying the role of prankster. For one song, he even pulled out a replica Star Wars light saber and began swinging it around while guitarist and vocalist Kazuhiro Momo tried to play.

When they got down to business, their mix of rock and pop tunes went over big with the Japan Nite audience. Isamu Fujita, who is normally the drummer, assumed the role of second guitar and hired a fill in for percussion. On several songs, Momo and Fujita went head to head on their respective axes. It was deafening eruption of sound. The highlights from their set include “Hammer” and “You are Rock and Roll”.

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During one of their songs, the band had a scary moment. Momo was standing at the edge of the stage with his back to the audience. He seemed to be lost in his playing and unaware of his precarious situation. He suddenly fell off of the stage to the shock of some fans and band members. According to press reports, Momo had recently recovered from a serious back injury in December. So watching him fall off the stage was pretty scary. Thankfully he recovered quickly and continued with the performance.

Despite the small crowd, the show was an exciting and fun time. It felt like I was attending a private concert with some excellent Japanese bands rather than a huge festival.

You can also find more videos of Japan Nite 2011 at the Blog’s Youtube Channel.

About James Leung