Puffed On Half-Japanese Poison
420 and I wasn’t celebrating. I didn’t even drink before the show! Apathetic and sober, a friend of mine, mellow from the holiday’s festivities, and I stepped in the meager line that trailed outside le Poisson Rouge (about a year ago I saw disco legend Giorgio Moroder at this venue, so maybe booking has-been scene-specific icons is this venue's thing). A bouncer came up to us and asked if we were in line for bingo. We said “Bingo?! No, we’re here for the concert”. He let us know in a cool tone that we were in the bingo line, and the show line was just on the other side of the entrance. We stepped a few feet over and got on line. We were the only ones waiting.
The show started early, with Cushions up first. A fairly new project formed between Kristin Worrall and Rob Erickson, their music comes across as a sweet blend between New Wave punk and power pop. With Rob running his guitar through several delay and loop effects, he would lay down the groovy rhythm foundation to each track while playing fast and crunchy leads, along with firing rapid fire lyrics spiced with a spastic variety of whooping and yipping noises. Never standing still and sporting orange floral pants, this hyperactive lead embodied the energy of an entire alternative rock band. Kristin was great support to his spazz madness; with two drum heads muted by t-shirts, her playing was precise and snappy. The acoustics in the venue were outstanding; every kick and crash from Kristin’s kit bashed against my rib cage with the force of steel piston. Transitioning between songs with warm and fuzzy guitar feedback, they were a great band to dance and bob to, with their overall style reminding me a bit of early DEVO. A great opener to a slow evening.
Up next was Danielson, a seven-piece band led by South Jersey native Daniel Smith. Every member dawned outfits that looked like a cross between flight attendant and scout troop uniforms. What they lacked in wardrobe versatility, they made up for with the cacophony of instruments each member played on stage; from an acoustic guitar, to marimbas, maracas, a synthesizer, and two drummers, every one in attendance was preparing themselves for an esoteric sing-along choir straight out of a summer camp nightmare. Their opening song focused on cyclical recursive lyrics bounced back and forth between the lead scout troop singer and his all-femme back up choir. With most of their instruments being acoustic, their sound was comparable to a more accessible Henry Cow or Can. The keys occasionally synthesized the tone of an electric organ, and when paired with the choir's perky doo-wop singing, exposed the nuanced gospel influence embedded within the outfit’s prog-pop aesthetic. Firm and stoic like a true disciplinary, Daniel Smith commanded a surprisingly high and effeminate falsetto register, often yipping and belting out stupefying high octave verses that made me question whether he might have been a eunuch. Jad Fair of Half Japanese, the headliner for tonight’s procession of the strange, was invited up for the act's final track, forming the perfect octadic feel good choir of goofy weirdos.
Finally, the night’s headliner: Half Japanese - The Band that would be King. A title deserved after forty decades of defying listener expectation with a juvenile high energy brand of blues inspired noise rock, distinct only to this pervasive outfit. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of their seminal record “Charmed Life”, most of the original recording lineup from the album was reunited for tonight’s performance. While these old-school outside rockers are revered for a legacy of hyper-absurd energy from their live shows, front man Jad Fair (a sweet old man I had the pleasure of speaking with before the show, where I squirmed and gushed in my skin like a nervous fan boy) seemed a bit out of it tonight. And in truth, something was off with the energy of the crowd since the evening started. Speaking from experience, most shows tend to have a momentum that carries and builds throughout an artist’s setlist: a band typically opens with some of their livelier tracks, getting the crowd adjusted and excited with the music they have in store, and by the fourth or fifth song, the audience is more or less captivated and wrangled within the artist’s sonic flow. An effervescence settles in, lifting the audience on stage with the band to jam along beside their transcendent tunes. Well, there really wasn’t a "take off" for any of the acts; and unfortunately, this was most apparent with Jad and the gang. Half Japanese opened with plenty of popular standards that got people excited, cheering and whooping to Jad’s playful sing-speak poems spoken in-between each track; the band, considering their blatant old age, started with intense enthusiasm as they played and meandered around the stage. But it was obvious the gang’s stamina just wasn’t what it used to be. Looking bored by the fourth or fifth song, a palpable hesitance could be felt in the audience; when the band would joke or act insane, no one was sure whether to banter along or observe in silence. The most devastating point of the show was during the performance of their fan favorite track “I’ll Change My Style”; a start-stop blues croon with pleading lyrics on altering every facet of your person to please that girl you oh-so desperately need in your life. During the breaks in the song, Jad would take awkwardly long pauses between lines, meant to be endearing to the crowd, keeping everyone in wait for his eventual completion of the verse. Well, the chuckles at these breaks were audibly uncomfortable, and during the final pause an audience member yelled “Go Fuck Yourself” at Jad. Nobody laughed, but no one boo-ed at the heckler either; and who’s to say he was heckling and not trying to interject some humor into the heavy silence. It was kind of hard to tell. Regardless, it was uncomfortable, and that unshakable discomfort carried on for the rest of the performance. They ended with a southern romp entitled “T for Texas” and said their good byes, walked out the venue door to respectful applause, and immediately reentered to play the encore; I couldn’t recognize the song. When they finally finished, it wasn't even 9:30pm.