Kishi Bashi at Cluny 2, Newcastle on 13th October 2014

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I was at work, minding my own business, when a late call came in to review a gig at the Cluny. The name of the artist was Kishi Bashi, and was apparently, as fellow reviewer Les Aitch pointed out, Japanese. I have something of a penchant (read: obsession) with everything oriental, so the opportunity to see an act, whoever they are, from the Far East will always excite me. It was after learning their ethnicity that I was told in more depth what the act would involve. I think I made it clear in my last review that I consider the violin the last denizen of hell, an instrument of torture rather than a means to please the aural senses. Alas, I found myself agreeing to attend a gig by a Japanese violinist. To compound my already waning excitement at the prospect the genre on offer was ‘pop’, which in my opinion is to be endured rather than enjoyed. However, I am a firm believer in trying something before professing a dislike, and anyway, ‘pop’ can encapsulate so many different styles that an open mind is a necessity.

I will begin by briefly reviewing the support acts. I had mistakenly assumed the gig would take place in the Cluny (1), so I was enjoying a quiet pint and a book in the bar area (Yoko Ogawa – Revenge, if you are interested, I wasn’t joking about the Japanese fetish) expecting to hear the band start up in the adjacent room. A good 20 minutes after the advertised start time I realised it must be in the Cluny 2 next door, so sadly I missed a good chunk of Tall Tall Trees’s set (I don’t think he’s named after a Middlesbrough nightclub). I did catch the last 10 minutes or so, and I have to say, he was fantastic. Hailing from New York, sporting a large beard and a pork pie hat the guy was playing what he described as ‘the world’s first remote controlled banjo’, I’m not sure what that meant, but he was bloody good at it, and it lit up in different colours and everything! He was producing a range of sounds using various pedals, a highlight being a short organ solo. He used a loop pedal to create what was at times and ambient atmosphere. Ambient banjo. Well I never. The music was a blues style clap along, and did the job of exciting the small but appreciative audience.

I wasn’t expecting a support act at all, so when the second act appeared, Beedy Heart (I thought it was Beefy Heart, maybe wishful thinking?) I was surprised to see a full band. Featuring the usual drum, bass, guitar combo, they also had percussion and a moogy type thing with buttons and knobs galore. The theme of loop pedals and distortion was continued, with some quite inventive use of rhythm and interesting ideas for loops. They reminded me of Asobi Seksu (Japan again), but with a male singer, I suppose it was a kind of ‘clean grunge’, feeling well thought through, but not particularly spontaneous. There were times my old man would have said ‘this is just noise’ and he’d be right, noise was a common feature.

The singer’s voice was versatile, at times sounding like Richard Ashcroft, then a smidge of Damon Albarn, maybe a decent measure of Lightspeed Champion. I enjoyed their set, it was fun, they had a certain amount of humour, without being too Zappa. There was a fair bit pre-recorded, but samples are fine if it would be tricky and expensive to get the real deal up to Newcastle for a Monday night gig, a shamisen for example, not easy to get hold of. The biggest laugh was reserved for a genuine comment made in error by the drummer/percussionist who said near the end of their set ‘I hope you enjoy Kishi Bashi, amazing musicianship about to happen on this stage’, don’t play yourself down son, you were pretty good yourselves. My friend commented that they looked ‘very London’, which was true, but to us that’s exotic, like if they looked a bit French, or Vanuatu….ian.

So to the main act, I know a little Japanese, so I know ‘Bashi’ means ‘bridge’, and I’ve just looked up ‘Kishi’, it means ‘Déjà vu’. This is interesting only because I felt I had crossed this bridge of reviewing a violin act before…however, the name Kishi Bashi comes from a much more mundane combination of the artists first and second names, Kaoru Ishibashi, oh well! A product of the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Mr Bashi is actually a native of Seattle, which did mean he was as American as pumpkin pie and not the slightest bit Japanese beyond his appearance. I can’t criticise him for that, although my expectations of a modest demeanour and unassuming dignity were shattered within minutes, American sass and extremely confident self-assurance were the order of the day. This self-assurance wasn’t without merit though, and he launched quickly into a nimble and skilful fiddle on his screechy thing, which, as the theme dictated, he recorded onto a loop pedal and distorted immediately. He was backed by a full band, with Mr Trees on the banjo and a bassist and drummer alongside.

It’s hard to pin down the genre they played, I think ‘pop’ does it a dis-service, there was more to it than that. It was toe-tapping, hand clapping fun on the whole, with the audience encouraged to participate and dance. At times it felt like US folk rock, think Fleet Foxes on crack, featuring some nice close harmonies, but his training is clearly classical. He has the stance of a formally disciplined student who perhaps hasn’t spent too much time sat around a campfire bashing out standards on a beat-up fiddle, but this is by no means a criticism, his playing style is very clean and almost flawless, which is important when recording everything into a loop pedal. I did feel that at times the looping and distorting became too much, I actually found myself wishing he would just play a little bit more plain violin, there, I said it. Seriously though, I don’t think we saw enough of his undoubted virtuosity. He sang too, in every number. I think his supreme confidence in his ability is fully justified regarding his violin playing, but not so much with his voice. Sure, it was at times very powerful, he has a great set of lungs, and generally he kept it in tune, but I felt I was watching a man perform who believed he was a singer, and his instrument played second…fiddle. I would suggest he work on his singing and promote his violin to centrepiece, then again, he had the audience enraptured, so what do I know?

Most tracks passed by without any Japanese influence bar a little bit of oriental modulation in one track, although he did throw in a few Japanese lyrics from time to time. They played a track named ‘The Ballad of Mr Steak’ which apparently, like me, was big in Japan. The man himself was dressed like the classic yakuza member that hangs on street corners in darkest Tokyo offering nights of unbridled joy, with peroxide streaks in a near Mohawk coupled with a sharp suit, and in this case, a bow tie. The track in question was as close to J-pop as anything he played on the night, a kind of Rip Slyme-esque pink-rock, I liked the track, mainly because it reminded me of fun times in the East.

They played a 2-part number named ‘Ha Ha part one and Ha Ha part 2’, which he introduced as being ‘a bit long’. I didn’t think so, this was my favourite piece of the night, and was full of energy, I found my toe tapping and I joined in with the inevitable hand-clapping. The whole set was full of energy, and I can easily see how Kishi Bashi have become a popular fixture on the tour circuit, and why the organisers made such an effort to bring them North, it just didn’t quite do it for me on the whole.

Before the encore, which featured the whole band, he performed some solo songs, with the emphasis on song, with heavy use of the loop pedal. I didn’t think this worked too well, it ended up messy, and I couldn’t make out a clear melody (maybe I’m just getting old and this was intentional), he mentioned the tequila he’d been drinking and I think it might have affected what was going on…

Thankfully the gig ended on a high, the band restored the solid grounding that had been missing towards the end of the set and some nice crescendos gave a sense of anticipation and excitement, he uses the pizzicato method very well, and can actually spit (I’m down with the kids) a pretty decent beatbox. There was a bit of disappointment on his part when he sensed a lack of enthusiasm from the audience to hear he’d visited ‘Black Gate’, Black Gate anyone? Anyone? No, me neither, I think it might be near Blackfriars somewhere…but he generally handled the crowd well, like I said, he was an extremely confident American.

All in all, he has not ignited a deeply entrenched love of violin in me, nor did he impress me with his singing, I was bored by the use of loop pedals and distortion by the end (of the support acts) and I felt disappointed that he displayed no signs of ‘Japaneseness’ at all. However, he has an undoubted talent for the violin, an inventive spirit, he is a poet and a showman and he is able to make a room-full of tired Novocastrians dance with careless abandon on a chilly Monday night, so whether I enjoyed it or not, he must be doing something right.

Reviewer and photographer: Joe Fowler

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