Sunday, November 30, 2008

Christmas... in Tokyo?

I was with a Yale friend at the time. I remarked to her that at least the colors made me think of Hanukkah.
The setup was gorgeous, a tree surrounded by blue lights that evoked the waters of a stormy ocean.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Sleeping on the Day Shift

This post is more than two weeks late. Sorry to lag, but it would be really unfair of me to fail in recounting this event. The concert illustrated below was an awesome experience, and I've spent quite a bit of time with the people I met that night. Follow along carefully. The following is a collaboration between my immediate impressions of the concert and my new perspective from two weeks later...

It turns out that Tokyo's Ruby Room and Syracuse's Funk n' Waffles have more in common than I previously realized. Both clubs have spawned their own scene of musicians and dedicated followers, most of whom are open mic regulars. Open mics are always full of rich interactions. Amateurs and newbies come by to put mileage behind their machines while the seasoned players drop in to try new songs in the low key atmosphere. After their sets, they sit patiently behind their drinks and scope out the up-and-coming acts. If you ever play at an open mic, no matter how good or bad you perform, chances are some cat will ask you if you are interested in starting a band and taking the world by storm.

I took Kayo's invitation to her boyfriend's rock show which was held Thursday night at Shibuya's O-Nest, a club in the middle of the love-hotel district. The show was called "Sleeping on the Day Shift" and Kayo was actually MC for the evening. Five acts were scheduled on the main stage while a line-up of DJ's were set to play in a lounge area upstairs. During the show, I ran into the entire who's who of the Ruby Room. All the artists in the line-up were also plugging the open mic. Even Kei was there, perched on a railing unassumingly in the back of the audience.

The O-Nest is the most legitimate club stage I've seen so far. The main space has room for a few hundred people, a stage fit for a full piece band, a professional lighting deck, and a fully adequate sound system. The roster of groups that play there is extensive, stretching from local indy gems to major label acts.

The first little gem up for the night was Nano, a 20-year-old Japanese singer-songwriter from New York City. After moving to Tokyo a year ago, she has already built up a small fan base, first through playing gigs and open mics at the Ruby Room and recently through online networking. I heard only good things about her from quite a few songwriters around town so I was excited to finally see her take the stage.

After Nano's performance, I approached her and introduced myself. We traded information and I told her that she should make it up to Syracuse sometime and play Funk n' Waffles.

Next up was Kat McDowell and her four piece band, a power-pop ensemble with great tunes and an absolutely wonderful front-woman who was extremely photogenic. Seriously, my camera struggled to contain her smile.

She is one of the few foreigners I've met here who can switch between fluent English and Japanese like a native. I know she is originally from New Zealand, but one of these days I'm going to have to ask her why her Japanese is so good. [*note: I learned later that she is half-Japanese, was born in Tokyo, and raised in New Zealand. This much I assumed before but I don't like speculating on people's race.]

A week later at Cozmo's Cafe, I saw her play a solo set with a few of the same songs. Take it from me, her music is incredible. On top of that, I honestly think she was born for the stage. You should see the way she commands the audience. She sings to the mic like it's a child. Her guitar strumming and body movements are in perfect sync. Kat's stage presence is straight up phenomenal. We had a chat the other day and I was very surprised to learn that she is only 24. Not that she looks older, but her maturity as a musician is way beyond that age in my opinion.

In the middle of the roster was Primal Concrete Sledge, a fairly weak hardcore band. I'll dazzle you with a great picture of them, but don't expect their music to have the same effect.

The penultimate band was The Watanabes, a fully gaijin rock band based in Tokyo. Of all the groups on the roster, I have the feeling that they have the biggest following. I can't put my finger on it, but I know I've read about them somewhere before.

Their music and lyrics were heavily influenced by The Smiths, which may even be the inspiration for their name. (Smith is the common surename in the English world, whereas Watanabe is common in Japan). They put on an excellent set and got really positive feedback from the crowd, many of whom were dedicated followers.

I have one educated criticism. Their lyrics are too candid. "Show me, don't tell me," also applies to music. The Watanabes had great tunes, but they illustrated their themes in too direct a manner. For example, take this lyric from one of their best songs, "I hate it when girls go for guys who treat them like dirt... I'm just a nice guy." The song was catchy, creative, and well written, but such obvious lyrics hamper the introspective qualities of good rock music.

The headline act was Sunset Drive, a power trio comprised of New Zealander Alastair on vocals and bass (I know him from open mic), Kayo's boyfriend Toshi on guitar, and drummer, Shin. The crowd was juiced up just about as soon as they plugged in. Once again I was witness to the wild side of Japanese culture. Even Kayo, who in a prior blog post impressed me as being so refined and professional, was completely sloshed and dancing around like a madwoman. Miyuki was there too going bonkers. I have no right singling them out considering the whole crowd of at least 150 people were in the same state. Most surprising was Toshi's pint-sized Japanese mom standing right up in front at the stage watching her son rock the house down.

If one thing truly bodes well for Sunset Drive, it's that the people at the show knew most of the lyrics and were singing along the whole time. Alastair is an awesome rock songwriter. If Kat had the best pop music in the line-up, I would say Alastair balanced things out with incredible rock-sensibility. He likes to label his act as indy, but from my perspective, I see their music as heavily influenced by rock from the cusp of the 70's and 80's, intense, raw, and loud.

Behind this sound was Toshi's original 1973 Gibson Flying V, a guitar worth at least the entire price of my trip to Japan plus a few gold chains. He bought it from a old man in New Zealand who wasn't aware that he possessed a nearly priceless vintage instrument coveted by collectors the world over. They say that old Gibsons have a characteristic noisy sound because their pickups aren't wound with modern precision. True or apocryphal? Don't ask me. But when Toshi plugged in, all I can say is that the sound is like painting the Mona Lisa with mud. Still beautiful, but simply a dirty mess.

I got to spend a little time with Toshi a few weeks later. Let me just say, he can be a vulgar mother-f*ker. While trying to learn some good and proper Japanese from his friends, he grabbed my book and started writing all kinds of really obscene slang phrases. I think I'm worse off for knowing these things...

Anyway, Sleeping On The Day Shift was quite the night. I've got my fingers crossed that one of these days I'll be in a similar line-up.

And for one more shot...
Here's a closeup of Toshi doing a little "Behind the Head" Hendrix style solo. Check out those awesome locks!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Keith Richards...J-Style

Do you remember when I first discovered the Ruby Room? I wrote about an extremely dynamic guitarist who left a strong impression on me, yet I couldn't remember his name.

"The first act that really impressed me with this guy, Hiroge, Hiroshi, Hiro? I can't remember his name but his guitar shredding is still vivid in my mind. He played his own version bluesy rock. To make up for a lack of American soul, his wild fingers injected a noisy and untamed freedom that from my perspective was distinctly Japanese. The grunge of his distorted electric guitar was mesmerizing. He ended his set with guitar fireworks and flashy runs."

His full name is Hiroki Uchiyama and he is without a doubt on my top three list of electric guitarists in Tokyo. He always opens his set with his own rendition of Bowie's "Space Oddity" and then cycles from there into his own spiral of guitar juice.

We had a chat before his set tonight and I showed him a few photos that I took of him in the previous weeks. He remarked that it was impressive that I play so many instruments and also do photography. He liked the pictures and wanted me to send them his way. I got a laugh when he wrote down his email name, "Hirokeith Uchards," an awkward combination of his name with the famous guitarist from the Stones. Those kinds of things are cool in Japan. I'm fascinated by the way they assimilate English culture here. For example, when Hiro introduces his bassist Mikki, he never does it in Japanese. He always screams, "ONU BASSU!! MIKKI!!" I've seen other Japanese bands introduce their players the same way.

I took the stage a few acts later. I have to say, I smoked through my first two songs. It was an excellent feeling. You know you are on fire when you can hear girls chatting in front, "Oo, I love this song!" I opened with Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason." It was the first time I had played the tune solo for an audience. Playing with a real amp and sound system was like driving down the same street in a sports car. You should have seen the smile on my face. If you've seen me play guitar on a good day, you might know what I'm talking about.

Hiroki on stage...

And here he is doing a little "Behind the Head" a la Hendrix...

I talked to Mikki for a bit too. It turns out she studied music at Berkeley in Boston.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

「My Japanese Friends」 です!

Figured you may be wondering about the characters I've been hanging out with. Here is a super awkward group photo of friends I've spent some time with these last few weeks.

From left to right, Taka, Saki, Miyuki, and your's truly.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Triple Header: Photos

A few shots of Bankin Garu rockin' the house down

I said it before. Kei's guitar will part the hairs on your head.

Yugo and Mikko playing the blues

I didn't give props to Deaf's drummer in my last post so I thought this shot would do him justice.

Triple Header

I'm tracing my bout with food poisoning back to a sushi shop I ate at last Tuesday night before the Ruby Room open mic. Early Wednesday afternoon, I met a Yale friend for lunch. Not long after we parted I could feel that I was coming down with a fever.

Earlier in the week, I more or less promised both Kei and Akko that I would be at their bands' shows on Wednesday night. Additionally, Yugo was planning on doing a show with his wife, Mikko, at Diglight on the same night. I couldn't miss that one either. Shino from the Tokyo Symphony would probably be there and I had to thank her for the ticket (read a few weeks ago) and I had to thank Yugo and Mikko for taking me hiking, and maybe Tatti would be there too... In short, I had three shows I felt obligated to go to on the same night. Fortunately for me, they were all a few hours apart from each other. Not too pretty for the pocket change situation but at least I was on the guest list for Akko's group.

In the beginning of the week, I was solely worried about scheduling. Ironically, as soon as that issue resolved, the main problem became my health. I was starting to feel quite feverish so I took off from Ginza where I met my friend, went back to Ikebukuro, and napped for the rest of the afternoon. When I awoke I decided I might as well go out. I felt a bit better and it didn't seem all that great of an idea to be boarded up in my apartment all night. In retrospect, I'm not sure if it was a good decision or not. It was after I went to bed that night when I really started getting sick...

Anyway, back to the Triple Header, what you really wanted to read about.

Up first was Kei's band, Bankin Garu, playing in Higashi Shinjuku. I had seen most of the guys around the Ruby Room scene these last few weeks and their rock act was every bit as awesome as I expected. The band mixed between divergent moods in a way I haven't seen before. At times they were sensitive, with the lead singer belting lyrics and gently strumming his acoustic to J-Pop Rock harmonies. At other times they were straight ahead hard rock, with Kei taking a step forward and firing away with his custom made stratocaster. Perhaps the coolest surprise in their bag of tricks was their bass player who had more than a few super-funky slap solos up his sleeve. I've seen quite a few rock bands use a slap bassist, but none as tastefully integrated as Bankin Garu. It is definitely an asset for the group.

I would tell you more about their final few songs, but let me go to another show sometime when I don't feel like balls. I think my impressions will be more perceptive.

As soon as they were done, I was off to Yugo's set at Diglight, luckily 15 minutes up the street.

If you want know more about Yugo's music, read the entry titled, "Causality: Part I." I do have one thing to say though.

I wrote in an earlier post about how the Japanese are often categorized as talented 'immitators'. After all, I find myself as far away from America as possible, but here I am listening to all kinds of great American music. I think Yugo does well to break this stereotype. He opened his set with his own down-home porchside solo version of Ray Charles' "Georgia". I have to say his understanding and utilization of the song's harmony was far more profound than most Americans I've seen. I was positively mesmerized.

When I first met Yugo, he told me about touring in the American Deep South. He said that some of the older musicians he was playing with gave him a lot of grief. He thought it was because they were ashamed to be upstaged by a foreigner. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised.

Last up was Deaf. On the subway to Shibuya I was really starting to feel it. "しようがない" I kept telling myself which means sometime roughly like "tough luck" and "suck it up". The warm air from the Ruby Room did make me feel better though. I had just enough energy to make it through the night. Read all about Deaf's set from my last post.

Okay. I'll stop torturing myself for the sake of music. I honestly thought it was just a passing fever on Wednesday. The food poisoning thing wasn't till the next morning...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Food Poisoning

This post consists of two letters.

Letter #1)
Dear Trusted Blog Subscribers,
Apologies for the recent delay in posting. There have been two major factors behind my tardiness. First off, this past week has been jam packed with activities, musical, social, and linguistic! Secondly and unfortunately I've come down with some sort of food poisoning these past few days. I've been more or less confined to my apartment since Thursday morning. When I get better, things will pick up.

Letter #2)
Dear Japanese,
Thanks to your cuisine, I've spent the last two days stuck in my apartment with food poisoning. You don't even want to know the details... Here's an idea, cook your food for once! And stop buying cheap ingredients from China! And also... stop eating McDonald's! It's not good for you!

And stop smoking!

had to get that off my chest, sorry


Chicks Can Rock - Part II

As I've mentioned before, DJ MeiMei is one of the bartenders at the Ruby Room. Her real name is Akko. She's about 26 yet looks 20, DJ's at local clubs, and even has her own rock band, Deaf.

Her English is fluent minus a little accent so last Tuesday I asked her in Japanese why she is able to speak English. 
She replied, "I went to high school in Syracuse, New York." 
It's a good thing that I didn't eat much that day, because I practically shat myself.

It turns out Akko was an exchange student at South Jefferson High School up north near Watertown, graduating in 2000, just 3 years ahead of me. She told me about how hard it was to be a Japanese foreigner in Upstate New York. She experienced all kinds of xenophobia from her classmates and was even told at the NYS Fair that the event was for New Yorkers and not foreigners. I apologized and told her that the people who were giving her a hard time were so ignorant they probably didn't even know the difference between Japan and China. I also remarked how when I was in Hokkaido, young girls would point at me and scream "Gaijin! Gaijin!" She said she understood the feeling well.
Then we started talking about the redeeming features of Syracuse; The Dinosaur BBQ, The Soundgarden, etc. I think she was glad to meet someone who empathized with her history, and to tell the truth I was happy too, considering that most Japanese don't even know that New York is a expansive state and not just one city.

Before I took the stage for my set, Akko put me on the guest list for her band's next show later in the week.

Gotta love the 'Don't Kiss Me' shirt.

Deaf is great. They are like a cross between noise rock and grunge, utilizing echo-delay vocals, searing electric guitar, and minor-mode melodies. It was also the first show I've seen in town that wasn't at earsplitting volume. And speaking of chicks who rock, the bass player definitely had her own sound going for her.

It's hard not to judge a band by their crowd. The Ruby Room was as full as I've ever seen it with people packed right up to the stage. Deaf definitely has their own dedicated local fanbase. After their set, the crowd begged them for another song.

I like to humor the possibility that I ran into Akko 9 years ago at some record store in Syracuse. We did go to the same shop after all.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

Japanese Woodprints: Ukiyo-e

The other day I went to the Ota Ukiyo-e Museum in Harajuku. Ukiyo-e are the famous Japanese Woodprints, perhaps the one thing that everyone the world over appreciates about Japanese art.

The museum is housed in a Japanese style building where you take off your shoes when entering. When I bought my ticket, the woman at the desk apologized because a large elementary school group was touring the facility. She said it would be noisy. Noisy it was, but something about watching all the rambunctious school children gazing at their own history was fascinating to me.

Ukiyo-e are absolutely beautiful. Even the post-impressionists in France found them fascinating, utilizing their drawing techniques and color schemes.

This photo is a bit blurry, but I think the composure captures the essence of the moment.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tatti's Jam

I'm a week late on this story. Wednesday a week ago, Tatti invited me to one of his jam sessions. I busted out my usual funky drum beats and even a little mediocre guitar playing. The other musicians in the bunch were literally top-notch. You wouldn't believe how funky the bassist was, and the pianist was a genuine jazzcat, cool hat included. I could go on and on...

Afterwards, Tatti and I went to a bar to meet some of his friends. He is a very cool individual and speaks good English. Although, he is the first person I've met whose foreign language skills get noticeably worse after a few drinks. For example, he gave me a little Japanese lesson:

"Hiku. Geetaa puraay (guitar play). Tataku. Doooramzu puraay (drums play)."

I then politely informed him that it should be the other way around.

We hung out and talked till 2:30, way past the last train. It took me almost 2 hours to walk home all the way from Shinjuku, but I wasn't about to drop 5000 yen on a cab ride.

Jaded Gaijin Can't Rock

One thing that has constantly been bothering me is the shear number of jaded Gaijin that I run into in this city. They all talk about how the Japanese are xenophobic, racist, and docile. They complain that people here have little personality and depth. It's a wonder why some of these Gaijin stay in Tokyo for years on end.

The number one worst thing that ALL of them tell me, "You've been here a month. You're idealism won't last." Words can be painful.

My blog is a weapon against these stereotypes. With every article, I'm trying to illustrate that if you dig in below the surface, Japan is not what it seems. And by the way, this blog will always be a haven for my idealism. Gaijin, it only takes one evening for me to prove you wrong.

Take last night for example.

I made my third appearance at the Ruby Room open mic and again, I was stuck with the first slot. I hear the die-hards show up two hours early to get a good spot. I took the stage and opened with a fairly emotional rendition of Elvis Costello's 'Alison' and then dive-bombed into my own arrangement of Hendrix's 'Foxy Lady' with a little James Brown style bridge. I was feeling good at first and was getting a good response from the crowd, but by the time I got to the second verse, I forgot some of the lyrics and got confused. I probably butchered the rest of the song. I'm already gearing up for a second attempt next week. "Ganbare!" as the Japanese would say.

Later in the night, while I was sitting and talking with Kei, the guitarist I wrote about last week, two women came up, said hi to him and sat down. Remember my last post about trying to talk Japanese with someone who knows fluent English? It happened again. I started talking with Kayo, the woman who sat next to me, and was quick to learn that she had studied English in New Zealand and currently works for a translation company! I told her I was out looking for a job and then she asked me who I came to the open mic with.

While I was formulating in my head how to say "I don't have any friends here" in Japanese, Kei put his arm around me as if to say "He's with me." I have to admit, it felt pretty cool to be in good company with Japanese rock stars.

We continued talking for about an hour. Kayo is super-interesting, worldly, and very open minded. We talked about problems with ethnocentricity and culture differences between Japan and the US, as well as Australia and New Zealand. I got the vibe that she was probably 30 or under and quite accomplished and professional.

She then introduced me to her friend, Miyuki, who didn't speak English. Miyuki wanted to meet sometime and have me help her with English. Considering I've been keeping tabs of my own problems with Japanese, it could prove to be a worthwhile exchange.

Later on, Kei took the stage. Honestly, the guy is a monster player. This week, he jammed out on some funk tunes that I wasn't familiar with. Read last week's post; I don't need to reiterate his adroitness and authentic style. The girls were telling me that he is famous around here, but I think they were being facetious. In my book, he definitely shares the top slot with Tatti. I told him that I want to see his band play a real show sometime and he told me about their next show in Shinjuku later in the month.

Before taking off, Kayo invited me to a show that her boyfriend's band would be playing at on Thursday. In fact, I was already planning on attending the concert since I had met the guitarist from the same group a week prior. Additionally, a really cool songwriter that I met last week, Yuki, told me that it would be worth checking out.

Xenophobic, racist, boring, standoffish? Wow, I don't know who you've been hanging out with, but I've been ballin'!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Shibuya Crossing in the Rain

My affection for Shibuya is self-evident by this point.

The Tokyo Symphony

Shino, the harpist for the Tokyo Symphony, is such a badass. Whenever I run into her at Diglight, I momentarily forget she is Japanese and I say something like "Oh, Hey! What's Up?" Then I realize she doesn't understand English, and after that I realize I don't know any informal nightly greetings in Japanese. So I kind of stare blankly for second.

Anyway, as I said earlier, she gave me two tickets to see the Tokyo Symphony at the Tokyo Geijutsu Gekijo in Ikebururo, which is literally 15 minutes from my flat. Unfortunately for me, I couldn't find anyone to go with. I asked all the girls I know in town and they turned me down for one reason or another. Double-unfortunately for me, all these girls are friends with each other. You know how girls are; the next time they meet they'll get to talking about how I asked all of them out to the concert, one by one. Then they are going to decipher the order in which I asked them and get super-jealous of each other. They'll start saying things like, "What an asshole!" "What a jerk!" as then quickly fall back in love with me. So maybe I'm not so unfortunate after all...

OK, OK, I'm being glib, I also asked some guy friends. Everyone is busy in this town, what should I expect? I'm getting away from the original point. Allow me to return.

The Geijutsu Gekijo has three halls, with one of the longest escalators in the world leading to the main hall. The architecture of the building is absolutely magnificent and no camera can truly illustrate the dominance of the massive complex.

The concert was pretty good. The orchestra played a few Western pieces as well as two modern Japanese pieces. I'll save my musical critique for another time.

Ironically, Shino only played on one piece at the very end of the concert. She was great though; the conductor singled her out for a personal ovation at the end of the piece.

Chicks Can Rock + Party All Night Installment No. 2

Do you remember my entry last weekend? Give the Japanese a few drinks and they will party till dawn. I'm proud to say that tonight I beat last week's record. It's 6AM and I just returned to my flat. I'm going to sleep but I'll try finishing this post tomorrow...

Like last Friday, the night began at Diglight, the smokey bar near Waseda University. The harpist from the Tokyo Symphony left two tickets for me with the bartender, so I popped by to pick them up and have a quick drink. I was planning on heading out soon to meet some friends. Instead, I got hooked by a fantastic blues and rockabilly band that was playing the Friday night slot.

Who ever said women can't rock? The lead singer/guitarist was a 60 year old woman, probably old enough to be an Obaasan (Grandma), but she could sing and play with the warm soulful tone of BB King. Minus poor pronunciation, her renditions of classic rock 'n' roll and blues tunes were making me quite nostalgic.
You have to know the blues to know what I'm talking about but this woman definitely had it in her. She would even get the intimate crowd fired up during her guitar solos by walking into the audience while handling her axe.

Both her and her lead guitarist played lesser expensive versions of the Gibson ES-335, a guitar with an oversized violin shape made famous by Chuck Berry in the 50's. The instrument has two hollow acoustic chambers and strong pickups, giving it a very high output. Played well, the guitar sounds warm and thick. While watching the pair on stage, I found myself daydreaming about buying my own.

And speaking of women who rock, the drummer was a middle-aged woman who had a steady groove and powerful style. I guess it was a night where stereotypes decided to fly out the window. While many blues singers are female, instrumentalists are a male dominated breed. Indeed, the music itself is perceived as being masculine. My hat goes off to these ladies for deciding to teach the boys a thing or two.

Towards the end of the show, I got a call from a Yale alum inviting me out to
Azabu-juuban to meet some of her friends. When I got to the bar, there were 9 or 10 people around a table drinking wine and beer. Most were Japanese so I was geared up for some language practice.

I didn't know it at first, but most of the people at the table were educated at international schools and foreign universities and spoke flawless English. I've had this experience many times before. I meet Japanese people and slip into Japanese mode. I try my best to force my way through a conversation until I fumble on my words. Then, surprisingly, the Japanese person I'm talking to busts out their flawless English often without accent. Then I feel like a fool for assuming they didn't know English in the first place. Or perhaps they were hiding it.

Having a group with facility in two languages made for an interesting night to say the least. All of these folks grew up expressing themselves in English and Japanese and would slip between both languages completely naturally. To tell the truth, how much of each language was used is hazy in my memory. I was doing my best to follow along and chime in with the language that was intuitive for the topic at play. Drinks and laughs were shared, business cards were traded, and everyone was most definitely enjoying their Friday evening.

Azabu-juuban is wicked far from Ikebukuro. My last train was at 12:30 but I was having way too good of a time to worry about such trivialities. As the night went on, little by little, our company began to filter out. Even my Yale friends took off sometime after midnight. By 2AM, there were six o us left, two girls and four guys; or put more appropriately, one American and five Japanese. One of the girls who was close with my Yale friends was admirably headstrong if not a little bit scatterbrained while under the influence. She somewhat obnoxiously yet perfectly acceptably invited us all over to one of the guys' flats which was right around the corner. I learned later that the two had never met before. I still find our illegitimate invitation to party quite amusing.

So we packed our things, picked up some snacks at a convenience store, and strolled over to this fellow's apartment. We huddled around the space too small for 6 people, goofed off, had a few drinks, and played Nintendo Wii until 5AM when we all split for the morning trains.

Before getting back to my flat at 6AM, I called my folks and left a message "Hey everyone, it's Ethan. Love you and miss you lots, but there is no place in the world I'd rather be but here."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ruby Room Revisited

I returned to the Ruby Room open mic last night. I got there 15 minutes early in order to get a good slot and low and behold there was already a line out the door. Damn Japanese punctuality!! I had to sign up for an early slot, but that was fine by me. I took the opportunity to warm up the crowd a bit.

I was feeling wicked comfortable with my new axe this time around. I could even hear a few people in the crowd humming along as I played In the Garage and Everlong. After my set, this overeager Japanese guy was mimicking my guitar playing and trying to learn Everlong. I showed him how to play it a bit later.

Returning to the same spot was a good move. A lot of the same people from last week were there and they all recognized me. Give the Japanese a drink or two and they will be just about dying to talk to you. I chatted up more musicians and songwriters and also met some cool Gaijin all involved with interesting businesses.

A cultural historian once described the Japanese as 'imitators'. I can see where he was coming from, but I have to disagree. Take Kei for example:

Kei took the stage with his pickup group, plugged in his strat and played the absolute meanest version of Hendrix's Red House that I've heard this side of the Pacific. His sound, his feel, his fretwork, he was an incredible guitarist. You have to be a musician to know what I'm talking about, but just the way his hands switched between notes and positions was reminiscent of the 60's blues a la Clapton and Hendrix. His fingers would find a note, make it squeal and bend, and then unexpectedly drop down to the next harmonious tone. Not to mention his growling strat tone which could split the hairs on your head.

This wasn't imitation, it was pure rockin' authenticity. I think I'm the imitator.

First Peek at Mnt. Fuji

Or should I say first "Peak" at Mnt. Fuji. Aha Aha Aha!
Even from the distance, the symmetry of the mountain is stunning.

The Neverending City

...12 million souls reaching to the other side of the world...

Monday, November 3, 2008

Party Till Dawn

Americans look at the Japanese as docile workaholics who are too shy and repressed for their own good. Au contraire! You have absolutely no idea how rowdy these people can get. Give them a few drinks and they will party straight till dawn.

This past week's Halloween festivities are case and point. By the way, the irony of partying Halloween style in Japan wasn't lost on me.

On Thursday evening, I was invited by a Yale friend to the Glitter Ball, a party hosted by Metropolis, the English language magazine she edits for. The event was held at a Shibuya club called "Womb," a fitting name considering the place was packed way beyond capacity. You could barely move between rooms for most of the night. The place was absolutely seething with unbelievably beautiful young women from all parts of the world, all the more sexy in their different costumes and outfits. Of course, it wouldn't be a dance club without a plethora of black lights, strobing colors, and an inundation of amazing, bass heavy, booty dropping music. I think the photo says all:

We stayed for a few hours, had a few drinks, chatted, and shmoozed. Overall, the place was a bit of a Gaijin love-fest, so we bounced around midnight. An excellent and exciting night by anyone's standards.

On Friday evening, per Yugo's request, I returned to Diglight for their Halloween bash. Yugo and his wife opened the night with a set of classic blues and rock tunes. They were followed by two local blues groups that were just totally sick for bar-room cover bands. The lead singer of the first band was actually the bartender and most of the players were regular Diglight patrons.

The guy with the blonde wig was definitely a shredder. He had quick and nimble fingers and when he turned it up a notch, he could really play. You can't see it in the photo, but I think he has a striking resemblance to James Iha from the Smashing Pumpkins. Maybe they are distant cousins, both endowed with the same Samurai Guitar genes.

The guy to his right was hands down the best guitarist I've seen since I've arrived in Tokyo. He had truly soulful fingers like BB King and an electric sound like Andy Summers of The Police. I learned that he was also a guitar teacher. We traded information after his set and he invited me to a jam session later this week.

The bands fed a lot of energy into the small crowd, but things didn't really start to get rowdy till after they were finished. The bartender cued up the mixtape and people started dancing. There was a mock stripper's pole in the middle of the bar that some of the more obnoxious people were taking turns pole dancing on, upside down swinging and all.

Through the course of the night, I talked with the different musicians, Yugo, his wife, and I even tried my luck flirting with some of the young Japanese girls that came for the party. I have to say, it's a total game killer when you stop mid-sentence and can't remember the simplest of words.

By that point, everyone but myself had had a few too many drinks. Alcohol can be the great social equalizer. Young babes out with their friends, middle aged women chatting up handsomely dressed men at the bar, drunk salarymen hungry for a good time outside the office, students, musicians, everyone out together drinking and smoking from 9 PM till the sun rose. I didn't leave till 4:30 in the morning.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Causality: A Series in Two Parts

Introduction - A Series of Near Impossible Coincidences

I don't even know where to begin this. If we want to talk about cause and effect, chicken and egg, I suppose we could trace chance events back to the beginning of time. For now, let me begin a week and half ago on Thursday. I was walking around Waseda University, enjoying the young atmosphere of the campus when I was approached by a a very tall American guy with long blond curly hair. I suppose being the only tall white man in the vicinity made me stand out as well. He was a visiting researcher from Stanford working on a dissertation on 17th Century Japanese poetry. He was very friendly, briefly showed me around campus, and gave me advice about academic musical research that I could do in Japan. Before heading on his way, he recommended a local hangout where a Japanese friend of his plays blues guitar every so often. I kept up with the Stanford student over email this past week and he kept sending me plugs for his friend's blues show.

Causality: Part I

Like many late nights, this story begins with the Blues. I took my new friend's advice and found my way to the basement dive bar near Waseda. The place was called Diglight and the show was titled in awkward Japanglish, "Yugo Cyber Blues Show." I walked downstairs into the dimly lit bar. The place was practically empty with just a few Japanese patrons sitting at the bar table, smoking cigarettes, and sifting their drinks. I had the feeling that I didn't belong here, especially in such an intimate atmosphere. I told the bartender in broken Japanese that I was here for the blues show. She said it would start in a half an hour, so I sat down, ordered a drink, and kept to myself. Time passed, and slowly, more people began filtering down the stairs, including another foreigner.

Yugo took the stage. If a Japanese man could ever be the Blues, it would be Yugo. He donned a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, a beat up guitar from a bygone era, and a voice that sounded like too many years of solemn songs, broken relationships, and whiskey to wash it all away. He plugged in his beat-up acoustic guitar and played his own soulful renditions of Ray Charles tunes, mixing the jazzy harmonies with his own breed of intense strumming, a dynamic that I've seen among other Japanese guitarists. Dark, down home, earthy, folk-like, his music was good. No, his music was great. This was the Blues about as far away from it's roots as physically possible. This wasn't a Japanese bar at all. I was sitting on a porch in rural Alabama on a sticky summer afternoon, passing the time with slow, somber tunes and a bottle of Jack.

After his first set, Yugo approached me and introduced himself. From years of learning rural American songs and playing a few short tours in New York City as well as the deep South, his English was good. We talked about our different musical experiences and the Blues, and what it meant to us. One of his strongest influences is a modern yet obscure American bluesman who goes by the moniker Bob Log the III. Log's gimmick is his detuned slide guitar and microphone, a telephone fixed to his face on the visor of a pilot's helmet. His songs are wild, depraved, and perverse. Between thumping blues rhythms straight from the bayous of the Mississippi Delta, he sings about scotch, sex, tits, and slime. In a later set, Yugo would emulate this style by screaming through a mic attached to a gas mask stretched over his face.

Bob Log was probably the last name I ever expected to hear in Japan. Even at home, he is relatively little known. I'm familiar with Log's music through my brother, an obsessive collector of albums from Fat Possum Records, Log's label. I felt that perhaps we were the only two people in the entire city of Tokyo that knew this music, yet by some act of providence, we ended up in the same bar. And if my brother was here to join me, we would have been the only three people in the world.

Hugo was so enamored with Log's music that the two musicians even had contact over email some years back. I kept thinking about my older brother, who used to transcribe Bob Log's guitar riffs for hours. I was quick to exploit this coincidence of taste for talking points and our conversation quickly developed. I went from a strange foreigner to a welcome guest from abroad who could appreciate the music in question. The atmosphere of the bar was quick to become more inviting.

It was in the next set when the "Cyber Blues" truly began. Hugo switched instruments to a reissued classic jazz guitar that he had personally modded with a MIDI pickup, allowing him to simultaneously strum the guitar and control a computer synthesizer. For lack of effective catagorical words, Hugo's breed of "Cyber Blues" can only be described as some sort of Electro Avant Garde Noise rock crossed with solo Classic Blues. His rhythmic strumming is animated and busy, his vocals purposefully raspy, and his synthesizer accompanies the sound with all sorts of flashy electronic effects and synthesized instruments. The atmosphere was topped off with floor lighting that cast shadows throughout the room and a pulsing white strobe light used for his darker, eerie songs.

Most impressive was his rendition of Louis Armstrong's classic, "What a Wonderful World." Even with his growling vocals and the wash of electronic effects, he was still able to poignantly articulate the lyrics of the song, "I hear babies cry, I watch them grow... And I think to myself, what a wonderful world."

Causality: Part II

While Yugo was off talking with some of the other patrons at the bar, a woman sitting next to me asked in simple Japanese if I liked Blues. She was just being friendly and probably didn't expect me to know much Japanese at all. At that point I was feeling a lot less awkward, so I let it all out and told her all about my history, how I was a music major at Yale, played percussion in the orchestra, played in different bands, etc. She was very surprised and told me that she too was a musician. I asked her where she played and she said she was a harpist with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. I was totally blown away. There I was at a dive bar in Tokyo, sitting next to a woman who played in one of the premier ensembles in her country. Her talent and musicianship must have been extraordinary.

In an effort to flex my Japanese and make conversation, I asked her who was their current conductor. She replied Kazuyoshi Akiyama. This was a surprising coincidence since Akiyama was the music director for the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra about 15 years ago. I vaguely remember attending his concerts as a child. She also found this amusing. I told her I was looking for work in the music world in Tokyo and I asked if I could email her questions sometime.

Here is where things start to get weird. She wrote down all of her contact information and I saw that her last name is Kataoka. I asked her if perhaps she knew my percussionist friend from Yale, Ayano Kataoka, whose family I stayed with last time I was in Japan.

Now Kataoka is a fairly common Japanese last name. Basically, this was a stupid question. It would be like asking your neighbor Mike Smith if he is related to the John Smith you met skiing in last weekend.

When I asked her the question however, she became completely aghast, grabbed my arm, and yelled at me in Japanese, "You're Lying!" Apparently both Kataokas were schoolmates for some years at the Tokyo Arts University and were good friends.

So what are the chances that I travel thousands of miles to a foreign country, head to a hole-in-the wall dive bar in the biggest city on earth with literally 12 million people, and then meet a woman who knows well one of my close Japanese friends from Yale? I don't even want to think about it.

Having an in at the bar was a great thing. For the rest of the night Yugo, his wife, and all the patrons wanted to include me in their conversations. I was feeling a million times more confident with my language so I dived in and yapped away. What started as an 8:30 concert, ended up keeping me at the bar till almost 1:30 am.

On the way out, I grabbed my backpack, a Northface hiking model, and was on my way. Yugo's wife stopped me and asked if I liked hiking. Of course, I replied. She then invited me to join them this weekend on a mountain hike outside of Tokyo. I'll be joining them tomorrow. Music may be useless in your book, but somehow in my life, it has lead me everywhere.