Hollywood Bowl’s “Big In Japan” was a major coup for fans of modern Asian pop, reuniting LA with three rarely seen but widely loved groups for the first time in a decade or three. Yellow Magic Orchestra haven’t played here since 1979, Cibo Matto and Buffalo Daughter since the nineties, but a healthy attendance at the Bowl proved that their groundbreaking work has not been forgotten.
In typical KCRW ethinic-night fashion, the program began with a presentation of taiko drumming and traditional Japanese dance. These songs seemed to be ancient and familiar to the many Asian families picnicking around me, probably the same pieces you hear at the Lotus Fair, but I also picked up the music of Yoko Ono in some of the vocal stylings and intervals, a tonality that Westerners perceive as tension and dissonance but which felt felt utterly natural and relaxing in this context.
Tokyo’s Buffalo Daughter, purveyors of a funky Japanese pop fusion known as Shibuya-Kei, were pure energy, utilizing Krautrock-derived hypnotic beats combined with James Brown chicken-scratch guitar and highly effective turntablism, all in the service of a melodic pop song. Unfamiliar to me before this night, I walked out of their too-brief set a stone fan. It’s that rare kitchen-sink kind of band where disparate influences are thrown together in such a way that you get only the best parts of each one.
Cibo Matto remain cherishable, offerring bright, cheery, day-glo surfaces with a deep underlying complexity. Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori just began their first national tour in over a decade on June 21, with a new album planned for next year, taking their brand of smart, infectious dance music to a new generation in what may be a more receptive climate. Again, their thirty-minute set felt abbreviated, but produced a great deal of pleasure while it lasted.
Yellow Magic Orchestra, whose founder Ryuichi Sakamoto achieved American success as a solo artist in the 80s, closed the program with a suitably epic and precise performance. YMO, along with Kraftwerk and Tubeway Army, is one of the groups of the seventies that helped write the template for eighties pop, finding ways to experiment with texture and dynamics in a non-guitar-based music that still had the ability to rock. Some pieces reminded me of Philip Glass, but reimagined for the pop music listener, a really sophisticated approach to repetition and variation that can still keep 15,000 heads bopping. If it still sounds futuristic today, it’s because the purveyors of electronica that followed in their wake only appropriated part of the formula. Sakamoto’s compositional brilliance and flair for evocative orchestration can’t be ripped off.
Yoko Ono made a brief appearance at the end of YMO’s set, jamming through a semi-faithful version of “It’s Been Very Hard”. Her very appearance had the effect of galvanizing the crowd, but her apparently impromptu vocalizing and sweet, natural stage presence kept that attention focused on the stage for the entire time she was out there. As I noted at last year’s Plastic Ono Band show at the Orpheum, at eighty-one, she’s probably the oldest performer I’ve ever seen that stills delivers effortlessly. She stayed on stage for the grand finale, as the members of Cibo Matto and Buffalo Daughter came out to sing the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye.” I know, that that’s a Paul song, not a John song, but nevertheless it made for a fitting close to a really exciting night.
Photo by DaveKnapik via flickr Creative Commons.