This is a bit of a jarring post on a blog that usually just writes about tech geek stuff, I know, and probably not many of the people who'd usually see my stuff are interested in it. But I'm mostly writing it to support the tour and to give Steve something to link to. With that said...:)
I spent most of last Thursday at the opening night of the second Next Music From Tokyo tour, at the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver. I went to the first tour too, back in May, and loved it so much I offered the promoter, Steven Tanaka, any help I could give with the next one. So with that in mind, this is more of a fan's recap than a hardened music journo's unbiased review. :) In the end I printed off a few hundred flyers for the event and handed them out at arcades and Sakura Media and stuff, to try and help with attendance, and then on the day I and a couple of others showed up early for the show and bought pizza and water and cookies and opened curtains and tried to help get the crowd going and stuff. But mostly, we were just enjoying the whole event.
The show is a mini-festival of bands mostly from the amazing but heavily underground Tokyo indie scene. A lot of these bands are kids from high school to university age doing 'the band thing' for a while without many professional aspirations, and the scene as a whole has a heavy independent/DIY/non-commercial ethic, so it's pretty rare to see the bands outside of Japan and few of them go on to become professional acts on major labels even in Japan. So this tour is a really rare opportunity to see bands, and a whole music scene, that would normally be pretty inaccessible in North America. Steven runs the tours because he's a huge fan of the scene and thought it would be cool, and does it at a major financial loss, so the whole thing is an incredibly rare enterprise - there's basically no commercially viable way to have five niche bands tour a foreign country playing shows to crowds in the hundreds for $10-$15 a head, so we're incredibly lucky to have the tours at all.
With all that said, the show and the whole experience was just as cool as the first one. Before the show the bands were obviously pretty tired but at the same time excited about the tour and just like on the first show were really happy to chat with fans (despite the language barrier!). I saw a lot of people who came to the shows chatting away with the band members and getting t-shirts and CDs and flyers signed, which made the whole thing have a really nice friendly feel and is one of the things I loved about the first show.
Which just leaves the performances. The night opened up with Susquatch, who are described on the NMFT page as playing "smooth jazzy melodic compositions furnished with aggressive drumming and intricate guitar work to add a forceful edge", which is as good a description as any, I guess. One of the things that the tour really showed is the incredibly high standard of musicianship in the scene. I've been to local indie nights at places like the Railway, where the same sort of Vancouver bands - small groups composed of local kids doing it for the love of music - play, and the comparison in most cases is pretty embarrassing. Most of the bands at those events tend to be somewhere between talented but under-rehearsed and sloppy - flubbing intros, missing notes, losing time - and just flat-out amateurs; one particular highlight I recall is a band composed of a guitarist/vocalist who knew one chord and thought he knew another, and a drummer who owned a snare, a tom and a cymbal and didn't have the slightest idea how to play any of them. From the evidence of the NMFT shows I've seen so far, this ain't how it works in Tokyo. Even the smallest bands on the tours showed an impressive level of professionalism - they all had a really amazing level of musical proficiency and without exception their performances are very tight, they play in key and in time and I don't remember any of them flubbing anything. Susquatch are a compelling case in point; they aren't necessarily very musically original but they're extremely committed and skilful and they have a very clean stage show. The audience was obviously appreciating the set but weren't completely won over until the last section of the set, when the singer and guitarist Oshikiri Kenta stumbled through a weirdly endearing monologue about how they weren't really as serious as his previous monologue had indicated but were in fact a very 'kinky' band. At first the audience figured he'd made a vocabulary mistake but his story about how cute the waitresses at Banana Leaf were made it clear that he meant more or less what he said! After that they launched into Spin The Words, a great number with an incredibly insistent drum part (which must be tiring as hell to play) which had the crowd bouncing and cheering wildly and kept them fiercely on the band's side through the closer. Nakano Maki's incredibly precise drumming was a highlight of the whole set and a great treat for drumming geeks.
Susquatch were followed by sgt., a pretty long-standing post-rock band who have worked their way to the kind of status a band like the Cowboy Junkies has in North America - not a celebrity band, but a solid professional act with a strong relationship with a committed fan base. Their 'hook' is the prominent place in the band accorded to the violinist Narui Mikiko, whose parts essentially take the place of vocals, giving the band a pretty unique voice. Post-rock is as post-rock does, and if you're not a fan you're not likely to get into it (if you're not sure what 'post-rock' is, think Sigur Ros, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and Mono - another prominent Japanese post-rock group), but I found them a really impressive band and thought the prominent placing of the violinist really works. Just like Susquatch, they turned in an incredibly high standard of performance.
Third up were Uhnellys, a bit of a departure for NMFT - they were the first band who really departed from the good old guitar/bass/drums indie template. Uhnellys are a funk/hip-hop duo with Midi on drums and Kim playing bass, baritone guitar (an awesome and massively under-used instrument) and trumpet (yes, trumpet) - he tends to construct a loop at the start of each song using bass or baritone and an array of pedals, and use the trumpet for tricks during the song. It's a pretty cool sound and they sell it really well, with great commitment - obviously most of the crowd didn't have a clue what Kim was singing/saying, but it didn't really matter, the cadence and flow and energy is the key to most hip-hop rather than the lyrics, and Kim comes off as a seasoned performer with impressive technical ability. I'm not the world's biggest hip-hop fan, but I really enjoyed the set, and Midi has a great repertoire of standard hip-hop beats which she peeled off seemingly effortlessly and bang on time.
The final band, and definitely the unofficial headliners, were Mass Of The Fermenting Dregs - note their English website is a bit out of date - who are moderately big news in Japan, having fairly recently signed a major label contract. You'd definitely have to pay more than $10 to see them in Tokyo. They started off as an all-female three piece but the original drummer left a few years back and they now have a male drummer. What they play is basically fairly straight ahead high-energy indie punk rock, but it's damn good indie punk rock and their live set is incredible. It starts with a darkened stage and the standard Japanese count-off 'sei, no...' and then doesn't let up pounding until the close. Halfway through the set Steven successfully initiated a moshpit which didn't let up until the end, and crowdsurfing ensued by the last number. The crowd was won over enough to keep cheering through a fairly lengthy encore break (another first for the NMFT tour, I think) after which the band came back out and killed Rat for an encore. It's hard to explain exactly how the band engages the crowd, but they do - Mishimoto Natsuko plays bass and sings from the middle of the stage, looking like she's in her own world half the time, but also in bare feet, which is a good gimmick. Ishimoto Chiemi plays guitar with her head down most of the time, but has the perfect haircut to look cool while doing it (and also for headbanging), and she scored major points by playing large parts of several songs from the front of the crowd and eventually from the middle with the whole audience surrounding her. Whatever the magic is, it works. I've never heard a fairly small Thursday night crowd sound that loud.
The small crowd is the main reason I'm posting this: Steven was pretty disappointed with the turnout and it's making him wonder whether to carry on running the tours. Given the amount of money he loses on each one, you can hardly blame him. He was also disappointed at the lack of reviews and so on of the first tour, so I'm doing my bit to rectify that for the second tour, even though my blog isn't typically the venue for this kind of thing :). Probably the number of Canadian music geeks reading this isn't huge, but if you are - or you did a search for NMFT and came across this - you should definitely come out and support any future NMFT events, they are amazing and you won't regret it; the music is guaranteed to be good and you get to see the bands in very intimate venues for ridiculously cheap prices, and hang out with an awesome crowd of fans and musicians. I've been to literally hundreds of gigs and festivals, with some huge and incredible live bands, and both NMFT shows still rank right at the top of my best and most memorable concerts ever.
As I write this there's one show left on the current tour, in Montreal tomorrow night (Tuesday 2010-10-19) at Club Lambi at 8:30pm, with local band Devil Eyes joining the NMFT bands. Tickets are $10 on the door. I'm no Montrealer, but I'd bet there isn't a damn thing better to do on a Tuesday night in Montreal for $10, so if you're there, get your ass to the show - you won't regret it. (And tell Steven I sent you :>) After that, Steven has/had the third tour tentatively pencilled in for May next year.