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!

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