GIG REVIEW: Live Earth Japan – Kyoto Toji (07.07.07)

While major cities played host to day-long mega-concerts in vast venues to alert the world’s attention to Al Gore’s SOS campaign to curtail global warming, the city that gave it’s name to the best known climate change treaty yet devised (the Kyoto Protocol) was hosting it’s own side concert. And what better setting for a smaller, more low-key affair, than the serene surrounds of the Toji, home to Japan’s tallest wooden tower and a symbol of Kyoto itself. As a gig venue, it reminded me of the annual summer concerts held at Glastonbury Abbey, which dates from around the same era; the only exception being that the Toji is not in ruins and is still a functioning place of worship, some 1,200 years later.

So to get myself in the mood, I watched some of the live feed online from the Tokyo concert already underway, as Japanese rockers Rize thrashed about and screamed with crazy hair, outfits and tattoos. That afternoon, I took the train to Toji station (about half an hour away) and joined the queue lining up beside the temple grounds. Once inside, we gathered in groups according to our ticket number, and were sent into the inner area via the pagoda in batches (picking up a Live Earth pamphlet and tote bag along the way). While much of the seating had already been taken, I found a seat near the back but with a fine view of the stage. What was wonderful about the setting was how it wasn’t just a concert within the temple grounds, but the temple building was the stage itself (well, everyone was performing in front of it, but it made for a gorgeous backdrop once the lighting was in full swing). It was just after 7pm, the sky was darkening, the humid air was thinning and a cool breeze was…erm…breezing. Then suddenly the tinkly Zen music was broken with a thump. Then another. Then another. Was Godzilla approaching? Were storm clouds looming?

No…DJ Fumiya marches across to his decks, scratches the SOS morse code (used in the interval music throughout), and is joined by the rest of his Rip Slyme cohorts decked in white jackets, different coloured hats, and shorts. The closest thing you’ll get to the Beastie Boys in Japan, Rip Slyme‘s goofy upbeat rap is a great way to start, and the audience claps and nods to their bouncy antics. I was pretty amazed how small some of them were, but they can sure rhyme the rhyme well, and as a rap combo, Rip Slyme‘s dash of humour and self-deprecation (no band can take themselves seriously dancing the way they do) is fun and refreshing. Even if I didn’t recognise any of their tracks.

Next up was song siren UA. Having not heard any of her material beforehand, I didn’t really have high expectations, but I was blown away by her performance. With only a single guitar accompaniement, she belted out a stunning epic flowing number of incredible range and a unique singing style – while it was clearly Japanese she was singing, she managed to make it sound as un-Japanese as possible, and more like Icelandic (though that might just be the easy to lump together Sigur Rós / múm effect when it comes to strange or ethereal non-English singing). She also made little monkey noises during and after the songs. This is a good thing. And she was also the most conscious of the evening’s goal in terms of saving the world, and seemed the most earnest in her appreciation of Kyoto (“日本の心”, “the heart and soul of Japan” as she called), even going so far as saying thanks in local dialect.

She was followed by Kyoto-born Bonnie Pink, another well-known Japanese songstress, but also one I’d yet to hear in any shape or form. As expected, the stage turned pink, and she began her first track, entitled ‘Heaven’s Kitchen’, which followed your typical pop-song formula, but the funkier vibe and the gutsy performance were enough to win me over. I wouldn’t usually go to see this kind of music live, but I think it’s safe to say that once can appreciate the talent and the quality of singing far better than just hearing it pop on the radio. However, her following songs weren’t anywhere near as interesting, and the rather shameless plugging of her singles and albums offset some of my newfound appreciation.

With a sole piano now occupying the stage, it was time for Michael Nyman, and it was probably the first time I’ve seen a solo pianist perform live since my school recital era (actually, there were a few kids taking turns at keyboards at the Sapporo Snow Festival). As the only foreigner performing that night (I’d only seen four other gaijin at the concert, all middle-aged, 3 with Japanese wives, 1 with a camera), I wondered whether he was especially popular in Japan, or had some connection with the country. It seemed an odd choice – I’m only vaguely familiar with his work, with only his collaboration with Damon Albarn on the score to overlooked frontier cannibal thriller Ravenous I could really vouch for. As a result, I was never too sure if the odd mis-plinks and mis-plonks were intended or nerves getting the better of him (his only audience interaction, understandably, being a series of bows before and after hi set). But having checked his Wikipedia entry, it seems like his music was also frequently used in Japanese cooking competition show, Iron Chef, which would explain the connection. Perhaps it was the slow and minamilist nature of his tunes, but his segment did seem to go on longer than the others (each getting only a piffling 20 minutes), and the close proximity to the road behind meant one tune was interrupted by the motorcycle revs of some jackass bosozoku. However, everyone seemed to recognise his final tune, ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ from his score to The Piano. And there was much applause when he took his final bow. But was this genuinely appreciative of his perfomance or were people just happy to see him go? Well, it soon became clear that everyone was here to see one act and one act alone.

Having recently reformed for a beer commercial (what do you expect in Japan), the legendary trio of Haruomi Hasono, Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto, aka Yellow Magic Orchestra, were taking to the stage for the first time together in 14 years (at least under the YMO name). It only took the stage crew to move on their individual mini-stages to get the crowd to stand, applauding and whooping. But when they appeared, the crowd were esctatic, as was I. Undeniably greyer, but also, undeniably cooler in their older age, they began with a stirring rendition of ‘Ishin Denshin (You’ve Got to Help Yourself)’, which fitted in well with the nature of proceedings. This was followed by two tracks I hadn’t heard before, and I have a feeling at least one may have come from Hasano and Takahashi’s Sketch Show project (which also sometimes featured Sakamoto, all three appearing under the guise of Human Audio Sponge). Whatever the case may be, they were both typical of their distinctive sound. Their final tune was their new remix of the classic ‘Rydeen’, which sounded so very good live, and had the audience humming the melody as they departed. While there was a wait for an encore (such a tease – waiting over a decade to play four tracks – what about all the guys who came in their YMO shirts?), when the equipment was being removed and the stage dismantled, it became clear that was that. Too short it may have been, but it was worth it, and for what will most likely be my last gig in Japan, I couldn’t think of any domestic act I’d have rather seen.

But did all this really get its message across? Who knows…unlike most of the other concerts, the attendees here were mostly plus 30 years old, who may not be as clued up in green issues as their younger counterparts. But Japan already has a pretty good record when it comes to recycling and the like, though it could probably improve on it’s ‘burn everything’ mentality, as well as the amount of unnecessary packaging used for most everyday shopping purchases. I guess the problem with the Live Earth concerts as a whole is that there isn’t really a clear goal or sense of unity or ultimate progress or achievement or influence being created. Especially as there has been little publicity made about them at all. Only two or three people I told about the event had a vague idea of what it was, and I haven’t read or seen anything about the concerts in Kyoto or Tokyo in the run-up to the day (okay, so I don’t read the newspapers or have a TV, but these things are meant to seep through somehow). At least I can be thankful for not having it’s omnipresence rammed into my brain – I can imagine in London there’s probably a bit of big important concert apathy, considering there’s one held in Hyde Park or Wembley Stadium seemingly every weekend. While I indeed have concerns about global warming, at least I got to see YMO. Regardless of whether the day’s objectives are achieved or not in the long run, for now, that’s good enough for me.

8/10

You can view videos of Rip Slyme and YMO perfoming, plus photos of all the acts, taken by yours truly, at my special Live Earth Kyoto YouTube Playlist and my Live Earth Kyoto Flickr Set.

> > > Live Earth Japan

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