WHO: Big In Japan Featuring Cibo Matto, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and Buffalo Daughter
WHERE: The Hollywood Bowl
A show called Big In Japan freely invites you to stare at its Japaneseness, and last night's concert at the Hollywood Bowl wore a rising sun on its sleeve, presenting both the most obvious archetypal images of Japanese culture: lanterns, cherry blossom branches, karate, fan-dancing geisha, kabuki, and taiko drummers -- and those less obvious yet still crucial ones, such as avant garde female artists who may or not have broken up the Beatles.
Emitting a series of guttural hoots and warbles set to a blues backdrop, Ono's one-song performance was like something a particularly un-shy three-year-old boy would come up with if you handed him a microphone and put him on the stage of the Bowl. Ono's career may have had its moments, but "It's Been Very Hard" isn't one of them. Look, Yoko, we're all very sorry that somebody shot your husband, really we are. But that doesn't make this sort of behavior okay, nor does it make a Yoko Ono guest appearance worthy of its cherry-on-top, saved for last placement in the lineup. Ono may have been the show's only household name, but she was far from its most accomplished musician.
That honor went to the members of headliners Yellow Magic Orchestra, who are, indeed, big in Japan. Hailed as the ahead-of-their time inspiration for legions of electronic music acts to follow, YMO stood out as an example of the best aspects of globalization, of the exchange of ideas that proves to have a far-reaching influence and incredible historical value. Yet the noticeably unpacked house was a testament to the way the band is generally regarded in the U.S.: innovative, influential, and important, but not exciting. The kabuki-masked dance performance that preceded had much in common with YMO's set: beautiful, masterful, historically and culturally significant, yet with the air of artifact. In 1978, when sampling and synthesizer sounds were strange and new, it's easy to understand the thrill those sounds must have once generated, and today it's easy to see that YMO is a venerable act, worthy of your respect. But no one in the wine-sipping Bowl audience, at any point, stood up and screamed. Kowtowed, maybe, but screamed, no.
The evening's only dancing was reserved for Cibo Matto, but even that was spotty, especially early in their set, when the pair seemed dwarfed by the immense Hollywood Bowl stage that seemed vast and barren after the departure of the legion taiko drum ensemble that came before. Leading off with "Beef Jerky" and their closest thing to a hit, "Sugar Water," Cibo Matto's all-sample, live-music-free opener left even die-hard fans feeling like the band's long-awaited reunion would amount to little more than a high-quality karaoke performance, and feeling that the act plays better in a small venue, or in a Michel Gondry video.
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But once Jesse Murphy and Yuko Araki joined in on bass and drums and Miho Hattori finally took off her sunglasses, the stage felt fuller in time for "Spoon" and a retooled yet still thumping "Know Your Chicken." But just as engines were revved by the joy of chanting, "EXTRA SUGAR! EXTRA SALT! EXTRA OIL AND MSG," it was all over, leaving fans to hope that a Cibo Matto reunion might lead to new music from the band that produced one of the most memorable albums of the mid-nineties, instead of just settling for a return as a nostalgia act.
After considering Cibo Matto's variable temperature and Yellow Magic Orchestra's venerable wisdom, the only real surprise of the night came from Buffalo Daughter, which, especially when followed by a smokin' set from Deee-Lite DJ Towa Tei, brought a much-needed freshness to the evening with tracks from their 2010 release Weapons of Math Destruction. Their mostly instrumental performance featured trancelike rhythms and echoes of the taiko drummers that came before, and possessed a very Japanese sense of order and harmony. The set list progressed from more measured to more chaotic, but would have been greatly enhanced by an indoor space. Buffalo Daughter's set would have paired well with two things: a venue in which the circular rhythms could reverberate off the ceiling and bounce into your chest, and the addition of an ikebana-sized joint.