Concert Report: Aoba Ichiko March 26 Kichijoji Kichimu

A few months ago, I came across a singer-songwriter named Aoba Ichiko. A break from my usual upbeat rock and pop listening habits, Ichiko albums feature slow, beautiful songs made up of her voice, acoustic guitar, and occasional ambient noises. She has quite a back catalog for me to go through, with five solo albums and a number of collaborative works. I discovered a long time ago that I get much more out of an artist’s albums if I slowly add them to my music library instead of speeding through all at once. So far I’ve listened to the most recent three, which are all quite lovely.

I usually jump right in to seeing an artist live once I discover them. There was one show that fit my schedule: a oneman show at a small jazz cafe in Shimokitazawa. Although the website didn’t say that the show was sold out, I didn’t have high hopes. When I phoned (the only way to get a ticket reservation), it indeed had been booked up for weeks. Very soon afterward, though, another opportunity presented itself. Her staff twitter announced two oneman shows at a Kichijoji cafe at the end of the month, and tickets were first-come-first-serve by email starting the next day at noon. Another small venue! Great for seeing an acoustic show, but I had an email ready to shoot off exactly at 12:00 to hopefully get a ticket. I ended up in the #4 slot, and it sold out shortly after.

A few weeks later, I arrive in Kichijoji on a Sunday evening and head to the venue. It’s cold and drizzling. I get to the cafe about 10 minutes before doors. The cafe is on the basement level of the building, and there’s a small fence blocking the entryway, indicating to wait on the ground floor. A staff member comes up eventually and starts organizing the growing crowd into lines. I realize it must be a pretty big cafe with how many people are now waiting with me. The crowd is decidedly hipster. I see vintage dresses, earth tones, oversized sweaters, unusual haircuts, kitch outfits. Age trends towards 30s and 40s. Gently muffled from the stairwell I can hear the sounds of rehearsal. It’s running late and it’s 10 minutes past doors before we’re let in.

Inside the cafe, I find no tables or regular cafe setup but rather row upon row of stools, crowded closely together. The first row aren’t even real stools but rather short stepping stools you’d use to reach a high shelf. Each stool was covered with a small segment of carpeting. Wary of sitting so low for a long period of time, I opt for the normal chair-height stools in the second row. The crowd slowly trickles in and the room fills up. People awkwardly step over each other and the stools to get in line to exchange their drink vouchers. At the front of the room was set up microphones, a toy piano, a keyboard, and a small guitar amp. At one point, I see someone peek out from behind the curtain cover the windowed door to the right of the stage. About ten minutes after the start time, the lights dim and Ichiko comes out to play.

She has an electric acoustic guitar and is dressed in a colorfully patterned dress with a black felt coat over it. Ichiko sits on a stool and without a word begins the performance. It’s breathtaking. Her single and playing are perfect; they’re exactly as skillful as in her recordings. She’s using fingerpicking but she also has a thumb pick. She plays for about an hour then says there will be a short intermission. When she returns, she’s wearing a gray-blue drapy dress and calls in another singer, in a matching white dress, so back her up. This is Aoyanagi Izumi, and she sings harmony for a couple songs as well as playing a eukelele one song and tiny hand bells the next. I can’t find much information on her but she’s playing a show this month with Ichiko and there’s this recording on YouTube of them singing together.  Then a male duo call “detune.” comes onto stage. One plays very gentle, echo-y electric guitar and the other plays the toy piano and keyboard. The keyboard player sings in falsetto and they have a three-part harmony. They play two songs before all three other musicians take their leave. Next, Ichiko plays my absolute favorite of her songs, “Kikai shikake no uchuu.”  I wasn’t sure she’d play it because it’s 12 minutes long. It is fabulous. After a few more songs, the concert ends an entire two hours and forty minutes after the start time. It was quite the show, and after sitting on a stool for that entire time, I quickly take my leave into the cool night.

My First Japanese Concert

The summer of 2012, I took spent two and a half months living in Yokohama, attending a Japanese language school to help improve my graduate studies. Although it was only three years ago, my knowledge of the music scene in Japan was completely lacking when compared to now. Whatever musical inclinations I held were mostly gleaned from anime theme songs and suggestions from friends. Armed with a short list of bands, I found a miraculously fitting show that just happened to be going on during my summer trip. The line up consisted of four bands: Stereopony (my then-favorite Japanese group), SCANDAL, FLiP, and 7!! (for some reason read “Seven Oops”) .

I recruited a new friend and classmate to come to the show with me, and on a blisteringly hot July day, the two of us headed to Shibuya AX, an all-standing live music venue that could hold an audience of 1,500 people. Having absolutely no expectations, we ended up seeing an amazing concert with such an unusual format that I have not seen it replicated to this day, even with over 200 concerts under my belt. All four of the band’s equipment — amps, drum kits, and all — were lined up on the stage. The lights lit up, revealing the left half of the stage, where one band stood ready. They instantly launched into a number, and no sooner had they finished than the lights of the left went dark and the right side was illuminated to reveal a second band. This continued twice more until each band had played a single song, with virtually no pause in between. SCANDAL, the band who organized the show, then gave a short introduction, which was followed again by non-stop music. Each band would play 1-3 songs at a time and the action would immediately switch to the next band, ready to give it another go. With an almost complete lack of chit-chat or transitions, the 19-song show was over in the blink an eye. SCANDAL and Stereopony took the stage together as “Scandalpony” for the encore, playing SCANDAL’s hit single Doll.

Large Japanese shows are remarkable for the crowd cohesion, with any number of set spots to jump, chant, or wave your arm. Caught in a sea of hundreds of people all pumping their arm in unison to the chorus of a song, it’s hard to resist the urge to join in. There’s so much of this arm movement that I gave it a rest partway through, my shoulder having grown sore. No sooner had I put down my arm than had a concerned fan tapped me on the shoulder and gestured to encourage me to resume participation in this almost fanatic arm-motion. It was both endearing and a little unnerving, but to be honest that has never happened to me again during a show.

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Image from EMTG Music

Set List

  1. Fall in Love (フォーリン・ラブ) – 7!!
  2. Kazaana (カザーナ) – FLiP
  3. Shunkan Sentimental (瞬間センチメンタル) – SCANDAL
  4. stand by me – Stereopony
  5. Lovers (ラヴァーズ) – 7!!
  6. Ookami (狼) – Stereopony
  7. Bibara Bibara (ビバラ・ビバラ) – Stereopony
  8. LOVE SURVIVE – SCANDAL
  9. CHERRY BOMB – FLiP
  10. Shut Up, Men! – FLiP
  11. Kaa to nyago (カートニアゴ) – FLiP
  12. Ai no kotoba (愛の言葉) – 7!!
  13. Taiyou Scandalous (太陽スキャンダラス) – SCANDAL
  14. HARUKAZE – SCANDAL
  15. Wonderland (ワンダーランド) – FLiP
  16. Sweet Drive (スウィート・ドライヴ) – 7!!
  17. Bye-bye (バイバイ) – 7!!
  18. Hitohira no hanabira (ヒトヒラのハナビラ) – Stereopony
  19. Doll – Scandalpony

That show would be the one and only time I saw Stereopony before their untimely breakup in the winter of 2012. However, that show also introduced me to FLiP, a band which would eventually grow to be one of my favorites. Sadly, Shibuya AX was eventually torn down in 2014 due to the landowners refusing to renew the lease for the venue. I attended its final show in the spring of that year with the Pillows headlining.

That concert was the first step into the wide, vibrant Japanese concert scene.