We learned. We laughed. We danced. Quippy stage banter. New genres. Cultural exploration. Friday night’s sold out Kishi Bashi show at Old Town School of Folk Music exceeded expectations in all regards.
The first act of the night consisted of two PhD students from Brown University, but this was no snoozy lecture. Julian Saporiti and Erin Aoyama (No-No Boy) delivered Asian American history through beautiful tunes; enabled by Julian’s humorous but insightful set-ups, an acoustic guitar, both of their voices in beautiful The Civil Wars-esque unison, and projections of historical images centered around Japanese internment.
They touted the songs, their dissertation, as an easier way to have a conversation surrounding xenophobia, economic jealousy and imperialism “especially in red states.” The duo’s personalities were perfectly summed up by their response to a cheer when they surveyed the audience for other PhD students: “Join us!” smiled Aoyama. “Sorry, buddy,” joked Saporiti.
The project is an interesting example of the age-old saying “write what you know.” In 2018 “writing what you know” is quite possibly too insular of an idea to be relevant —No-No Boy makes a great case for writing what you learn.
For as much as I love the warm feeling of relatability in lyrics detailing mundane daily experiences (the reason I latch onto artists like Courtney Barnett and Sidney Gish), I thoroughly enjoyed the more trying experience of learning about a history filled with anything but mundane daily routines. There’s a certain payoff to taking in that which is unfamiliar, and will remain so, in a familiar way—in this case, live music on a Friday night.
It’s a phenomenon that Saporiti has dedicated his life to: Exploring history through music. “I’m literally a card-carrying ethnomusicologist,” he said. This point of view inspired tracks with lyrics like, “At the moment the bomb went off, they were playing purple haze.”
The band taught the audience through stories of the personal (anecdotes of parents and grandparents experiencing internment and imperialism) and historical (a song dedicated to Tomoki Ogata — a 61-year-old resident of a Japanese internment camp who hung himself and wasn’t found for three weeks). Although No-No Boy’s songs were sung accessibly in the tune of The Lumineers, the duo called themselves “the worst opening act” for delivering such a strong and trying historical narrative before Kishi Bashi’s bouncy tunes. The audience’s partial standing ovation as they left the stage affirmed they were anything but.
The second act of the night, Ho Etsu Taiko, was a 10-piece collective of Chicago-based musicians with a fresh take on traditional Japanese Taiko drumming. Their instrumental setup was impressive for an intimate venue like the Old Town School of Folk Music: the numerous drums were made of wine barrels and skinned with untanned cowhides. I am severely under-certified to review this genre of music, so I will just point out that the collective’s charisma was contagious and the reverberations of the drums could be felt intensely throughout the intimate venue, stirring excitement in the audience both for Ho Etsu and for the headliner still to come.
When Kishi Bashi finally took the stage solo, he was seated behind a piano. He joked that we had signed up for “An Evening With Kishi Bashi.” He played a few melodies tinged with funny add-ins about how it’s actually recorded… because without actually experiencing it, it’s hard to imagine how “Hey Big Star” and “The Ballad of Mr. Steak” could come to life solely on keys. And, in truth, the steak wasn’t as “well done” as it would have been with accompaniment.
Thankfully, after a few songs Bashi took up his violin as his long time musical collaborator Mike Savino (Tall Tall Trees) joined him on stage. The coworker I unknowingly took to a four-hour study in Japanese culture clapped loudly for the first time when Bashi and Savino jammed together on deep cuts with transcendent violin loops and banjo drumming.
Bashi was an adroit performer: He dedicated “Q&A” to an engaged couple, one of whom was wearing a special edition t-shirt dedicated to the song. He had more live looping than any act I’ve ever witnessed, balancing the violin on his shoulder as he toe tapped the machine on the ground. He made self-deprecating jokes, one of the better of which involved Savino. “Mike and I used to play in a jazz fusion band in New York,” he said. “That’s the punchline,” he continued to an amused audience.
But beyond his impressive performance, which warranted more dancing than the venue’s pew-like seating allowed, Bashi proved he was an innovator beyond the stage. He showed the sizzle reel to his upcoming “sound film” addressing incarceration in America titled “Omoiyari” (which he promised to screen in Chicago next year). Although I must admit “sound film” seemed like an abstract art school concept, it came to life as Bashi married the media of stage and screen: improvising a violin solo against a clip of him playing violin in the Manzanar concentration camp (Owens Valley, Calif.). The meta culmination of image and sound, past and present has me itching for tickets to “Omoiyari.”
Bashi also played a song he wrote for the 20-piece Nu Deco Ensemble orchestra in Miami. He called his orchestral collaboration “epic” before backpedaling from embarrassment related to the self aggrandizement, but no one in the audience would have disagreed with the descriptor.
Before his last song, an extraordinarily energetic, expansive version of “Manchester” that seemed bigger than a duo, Bashi teased (more like foretold) an encore noting the Taiko drums still on stage. With Ho Etsu behind him, Bashi led the group in a beautifully sincere version of “m’Lover” as the drummers sang back up and smiled, thrilled to be in collaboration with one of their idols. Bashi even took off the jacket of his three-piece suit to don a Happi coat in unison with the collective.
Bashi excitedly introduced “Brandenburg Stomp,” a bonus track off his 2014 album “Lighght,” which he performed live for the first time ever since he finally had backing Taiko accompaniment.
He capped off the night and the four-song encore with hit tracks “Brite Whites” and “Atticus, In The Desert,” and the audience tested the stifling seating arrangements by standing, swaying and even jumping. At 11:48pm, the night’s music wrapped up and the audience walked into the chilly summer night thrilled, tired and ready for Kishi Bashi’s promised next album.