So here I am again, emerging from another months-long hiatus to gush about a rock band from Japan. I did it last year with Puffy, and now it’s time for…Shonen Knife. The female rock trio has been rocking out for over 25 years now — and has been making regular tours of America for about 15 — but last night was the first time I’d ever seen them live. And believe me, it was one of the best live experiences I’ve ever enjoyed.
Somewhat amusingly, Shonen Knife — featuring sisters Naoko Yamano (guitar, vocals) and Atusko Yamano (bass, vocals), along with Etsuko Nakanishi (drums) — are touring in support of Genki Shock!, a CD that came out in America more than a year ago, and was released in Japan over two years ago. The reason for this is because Shonen Knife’s latest CD, fun! fun! fun!, has yet to be released in America. Though they played two songs from that album, the disc itself was not available at the merch counter as an import (not that it matters to me, since I already own it — I even have one of the first pressings with the song “Minami no Shima” misspelled on the back cover!).
The concert itself was at the Magic Stick in Detroit, which sits on the second floor above a bowling alley. I went with Reaper, who always likes a good concert. Since neither of us had been to the Magic Stick before (even though it’s not too far from where I went to college) we left a little early in case we had to find parking — since trying to find parking in Detroit can sometimes be a chore if you don’t want to park at a meter on the street (and we didn’t). What was also nice was that unlike, say, Harpo’s (another Detroit concert venue, albeit one that’s in a very bad neighborhood) we didn’t have to get searched, empty our pockets or go through a metal detector to make sure we wouldn’t assault another audience member.
After a slight mixup, whereby we somehow ended up going the wrong way on a freeway that we both know by the back of our hands (thanks to Reaper’s new GPS unit, which never quite seemed to know where we were, and told us to head on the westbound freeway instead of eastbound), we arrived at the venue. First indicator the night would be awesome? Not only was there plenty of parking left on-site, but it was only $4! Contrast that with the usual $15-$20 for most other events in Detroit, and this was a total bargain…especially considering the tickets were only $12 apiece (I actually paid a little bit more thanks to Ticketmaster and their service charge, but not much more).
From there we went into the bowling alley — since the concert was upstairs we were allowed to sit inside and wait for the doors to open instead of freezing our butts off in the freezing weather outside. As we waited we were treated to some ’70s-themed radio station, complete with the likes of Kenny Rogers, Carole King, Elton John, Paul McCartney and the Temptations. Though the tickets said the doors were at 8 PM, it was more like 8:30 — at least I think it was around then that the security guard told us we could go up the stairs. But we hit a bit of a snag, because the guard actually meant “go up the stairs, but stop at the top of the stairs and line up against the wall.” Whoops. So after telling the few of us that went upstairs to go back to the stairwell, we waited for about a minute before they let us back up, only this time checking our tickets and stuff (I had wondered why no one took our tickets when we initially went up the stairs; it was because they weren’t ready to yet).
I immediately made a beeline for the merch counter (which I had surreptitiously scoped out when we were upstairs when we weren’t supposed to be) and picked up a couple of cool finds — the last copy of Shonen Knife’s “All I Want For Christmas” CD single they had, and a copy of the Super Mix remix album. Nice! They actually had a lot of Shonen Knife CDs there – copies of the U.S. versions of Heavy Songs, Genki Shock!, and the recent re-releases of Shonen Knife’s first four albums were in abundance. But I already have all of those (save for the U.S. version of Heavy Songs — I have the Japanese re-release), so I didn’t get any (at least at that point, but more on that later).
They had t-shirts at the merch table, too, but I didn’t get one because the kind I wanted — with the cover art for Genki Shock! on it — only came in Medium and Small sizes for men. I’m only a little overweight, but a Medium size t-shirt would just be ridiculous on me no matter how much I weighed. They did have two other shirts that came in Large sizes, but those weren’t really my style (one had the cover design from the Fork and Spoon tribute album, and the other advertised both Shonen Knife and the Juliet Dagger, who are also on the tour). So no t-shirt for me.
Reaper and I situated ourselves at a table off to the right of the stage (the Magic Stick is actually a billiards hall, so there are tables surrounding the dance floor area), and almost immediately we saw four people climb up onto the stage from the dance floor. As we were wondering what was going on, we discovered it was the first band of the evening. I knew that there were going to be at least two bands prior to Shonen Knife, but we were surprised with a third. Their name escapes me right now, but it was “Lies Right Underneath” or something similar. They were a local band, as evidenced by references to Woodward Avenue and the like in their songs. They weren’t bad, but the sound guy had a thing for undermixing the vocals all night, so it was difficult to hear what they were singing about. They did rock out reasonably well, though.
That band played for a 20-30 minutes, after which there was a set change. It was at this point that I decided to make another run to the merch table (which surprisingly stayed crowd-free until after the show). Amazingly, I found another hard-to-find CD for my collection — a copy of the “E.S.P.” CD single from back in 1996! I dutifully plunked down my $10 for that, and spied another Japanese import: a digipak version of Happy Hour, Shonen Knife’s CD from 1998 (and last SK album to feature Michie Nakatani, the band’s original bassist). I resisted the temptation to buy it, though…mainly because I already own that CD, albeit in standard jewel case form. The nice woman behind the counter (whose name I can’t recall at the moment, but she was introduced to the crowd later by the Juliet Dagger — Later Edit: Miyoko is her name) was probably sick of seeing me already, but it wouldn’t be my last trip to the merch table that night.
Eventually another band — an all-male three-piece — climbed on the stage, all of their gear (guitar, bass, bass drum, amplifiers) adorned with arrows of all sizes. This was Verona Grove, the first “proper” opening band of the evening. As Reaper liked to point out, they had a thing for hoodies and tight trousers — especially the drummer, whose pants kept sliding down his rear. Verona Grove was pretty good, but again the way undermixed vocals took a little away from the performance (they even had to ask the sound guy to put the vocals up louder, and they were still too quiet). After their set they retired to the merch counter, where you could buy their CDs and t-shirts and meet the band.
After Verona Grove’s set, the between-set music played over the PA system because all Black Sabbath, all the time. At that point they put on the Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath album, to both Reaper’s and my great delight. I resisted the temptation to go back to the merch table yet again, and waited patiently for the third and final opening act, the Juliet Dagger, to begin. At this point some of the crowd — which only numbered about 60 or so people by my count — began to congregate a little on the dance floor. A few people had done so for the first two bands, but for the most part everyone had stayed in their seats up to that point (and even then, most people didn’t leave their seats until Shonen Knife hit the stage).
The Juliet Dagger were definitely the best of the three opening bands (though I certainly enjoyed all three bands more than, say, Tally Hall, who opened for Puffy last year). I felt a little bad for them, especially as their singer kept trying to get the crowd going, to no avail (I must admit that I didn’t get too fired up, either). Reaper claimed to like them a bit, but not enough to go and buy a CD. Once the Juliet Dagger ended their set (to a fair amount of applause) they took their place at the merch counter, and the PA system now struck up Black Sabbath’s Paranoid album. At this point it was just past 11 PM.
A short while later, after the stage was set up and the guitars were tuned, it was time for the headliner (who Reaper had spied entering the theatre from the back — “I just saw three tiny Japanese women in heavy coats walking back there”). So we quickly made out way to the center of the dance floor, with me climbing almost right up to the stage (there were two guys in front of me, but that was it) while Reaper stayed back. As the prerecorded tape of “Mango Juice” came over the PA, Shonen Knife — dressed in their Genki Shock! costumes (most Shonen Knife albums have stage costumes unique to those albums, and sometimes they wear different costumes on different nights) — walked onto the stage. Naoko held up a white-on-green towel reading “Shonen Knife Osaka Japan” and Etsuko help up a gold-on-black towel reading “Shonen Knife.” After putting their gear on they quickly launched into their set proper with the ultimate concert-opening song, “Konnichiwa.”
I won’t go through the concert song-by-song, but suffice to say it was a powerful, high-energy performance. There were a few digressions from the all-out rock — like “Las Vegas,” from fun! fun! fun!, and “Mysterious Drug Store” — but for the most part it was piles upon piles of kick-ass rock and roll. Naoko, who writes and sings most of the songs, kept the crowd (or at least me) head-banging with her guitar riffs and rhythm guitar playing. The rest of the band were no slouches either. I was amazed at just how good of a bassist Atsuko is; I’m not a musician, but she was playing some really good basslines throughout the night. I mean, I knew she was good from hearing the records, but in concert she was absolutely amazing. If one didn’t know better, you’d swear she’s been the band’s bassist forever (she was actually the band’s original drummer!). Lastly, Etsuko is one fantastic drummer, pounding on the drums with amazing force, but not overplaying one bit — she just goes about her business with amazing efficiency. I’ve read that she’s a very shy person, and that certainly came out in her stage presence, but it served as a nice counter-balance to Naoko and Atsuko bouncing all over the place.
Also of note is Shonen Knife’s stage choreography. Very often Naoko and Atsuko would stand at the center of the stage and headbang in unison as they played, very much like Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley of KISS used to do. In addition, Naoko was very often flying all over the stage when she wasn’t singing, even managing to do a few quick poses for the guy in front of me, who was snapping pictures all night long. I didn’t bring a camera, mainly because I didn’t think they’d be allowed — practically every concert I go to has a “no cameras” policy, and people even had their camera phones confiscated at Puffy’s show last year. But not so at this concert; heck, I saw at least one person recording the whole concert on their digital camcorder!
Another thing to note: unlike Ami and Yumi of Puffy, Naoko is a bit more fluent in English…or at least a bit more comfortable making conversation. She was able to talk to the crowd and crack jokes without the aid of a notepad, and was very humourous, whether if she was relating to us the meaning of “Genki Shock!” or telling us the stories behind her songs, like “S*P*A*M” or “Sushi Bar Song” (which Reaper was thrilled about them playing). She was also able to respond to the (many) shouted comments from the audience — at one point when Naoko said she hopes to come back to Detroit soon, somebody shouted back “Tomorrow!” and she fired right back, “But tomorrow we are in Chicago!”
A lot of the comments from the crowd ended up becoming annoying — and to the band’s credit, they didn’t let it bother them (at least that’s how it seemed). For example, after every song some guy behind me would constantly shout, “CHOCOBARS!” — meaning he wanted to hear the song “I Wanna Eat Chocobars,” which (to my knowledge, anyway) Shonen Knife doesn’t play live anymore. And seeing as Shonen Knife played nearly 20 songs, hearing the same guy shout “CHOCOBARS!” after every tune was irritating. Not only that, but there were other people in the crowd shouting songs they wanted to hear, as if it were request night (which struck me as a bit rude, to be honest). In the end, it would seem that maybe the constant shouting may have gotten to the band in some way, as they actually changed part of their set list to accomodate the crowd…
As I said, I was standing almost right at the edge of the stage (pretty much center stage, even!). As such, I could see Atsuko’s set list taped to the stage floor (which the guy in front of me helped himself to before the encore started. Nice.), and the encore was supposed to start off with a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” which Shonen Knife has been playing at various stops on the tour. However, the girl behind me who kept shouting for “Twist Barbie” (and “E.S.P.”, I think) got her wish, as “Satisfaction” was dropped in favor of “Twist Barbie” to start the encore. Now, I love “Twist Barbie,” but I was interested in hearing Shonen Knife’s take on “Satisfaction.” Alas.
The best part was perhaps saved for last, as Naoko announced that the band would be at the merch counter after the show, mingling with fans and signing autographs. Though it was quite late at this point, I was determined to get an autograph. I figured it would be better to get an autographed tour souvenier (instead of the imports I had bought earlier), so I made one last trip to the merch counter and picked up a(nother) copy of Genki Shock! for the band to sign. It was actually the third copy of the album I’d bought — I already had the U.S. version and the Japanese version, but this one was going to be autographed! Woo hoo!
So after patiently waiting in line, I finally made my way up to the table that Naoko and Atsuko were standing behind, with Etsuko just off to the side. As soon as I handed my CD to Naoko, she gave me a strange look of recognition and asked me, “You were at our last show, yes?” I presume she was talking about the previous night’s show in Cleveland, Ohio, at the awesomely-named Grog Shop. While it would have been totally cool had that been the case, I told her that no, this was my first time I’d ever seen Shonen Knife live in concert (“So this is your first show, then?” she replied, thanking me when I told her how awesome they were). Then Atsuko took the CD and signed it. I thanked her as she gave the CD back to me, then I stepped over to Etsuko, who was busy talking to someone, so I had to wait a moment. When she was done she signed my CD for me, and I thanked her and told her the band was awesome (though I’m not sure if she understood me beyond “thank you”). Amusingly, Reaper commented afterwards that he was amazed at how short Etsuko was — indeed, the top of her head barely reached my shoulder, if that (again, though, I’m fairly tall).
Reaper and I hung out for a few more seconds afterwards, but it was nearly 1 AM at this point. We made our way back downstairs and back to his waiting car. All in all, it was a pretty worthwhile evening, I’d say. I know I definitely was screaming my head off, headbanging furiously, and singing along to pretty much every song!
Many thanks to Shonen Knife — Naoko, Atsuko and Etsuko — for such an amazing performance. And to the opening bands, too, who made the entire evening enjoyable. Punk rock forever!
Oh, and if you were curious, here’s the list of songs Shonen Knife played. I’m pretty sure I got down all the songs they played, but this isn’t the exact order (though it’s somewhere in the ballpark). The only songs whose order I’m absolutely certain of are the first two and the last four. This is all by memory, so apologies in advance if I erred (also because I’m doing this on four hours of sleep — I fully expect to keep making revisions to this for weeks on end). Except where otherwise noted, Naoko sang lead vocals, and Atsuko sang backing vocals.
Flying Jelly Attack
Whatever (Atsuko lead vocal)
Mysterious Drugstore (Atsuko lead vocal)
Sushi Bar Song
Riding on the Rocket
Giant Kitty, straight into…
Cobra Vs. Mongoose (Shonen Knife threw up the horns repeatedly during this song)
Twist Barbie (was supposed to be “Satisfaction”)
Buttercup (I’m a Super Girl)