Song of the Day: "元気 perfect issue"

This is the kind of music I wish Akanishi Jin (formerly of Japanese pop idol super group KAT-TUN) would do as he branches out and does solo work.

[audio https://dl.dropbox.com/u/7431696/%E5%85%83%E6%B0%97%20perfect%20issue.m4a ]
元気 perfect issue is part of the album created for the movie “Bandage,” starring Akanishi as the lead singer of a rock band, LANDS. The title of the album is “Olympos.”

Striking out of my musical comfort zone

Now generally my musical tastes when it comes to offerings from Japan run more to the likes of Gackt and yes, for my sins, one of the groups out of the notorious idol jimusho, Johnny’s Entertainment, TOKIO, but I like to support efforts to bring Japanese culture to Chicago so last Tuesday night, a friend and I took in the annual Japan Nite offerings at the Empty Bottle, in Chicago.

This is becoming an annual event at Empty Bottle, with Japan Nite in its fourth year and I was excited to be able to make it this year, having had schedule conflicts previous years. I knew almost nothing about the 4 groups who would be playing, other than the brief blurb on the Empty Bottle site and a quick spin of the various bands’ web pages, and I purposely chose not to sample any of their music in advance because I wanted to experience them first live and in-person.

First up was Hystoic Vein, a 4-girl group billed as Garage / Glam / Punk on their My Space page.

Hystoic_vein

 

(Left, vocalist Inko, Right, drummer Lyn)

Is it wrong to call them charming? But I did, enjoying their somewhat quirky vibe. 

Next up were the Zukuna Sisters, aka Zukunasi, a female foursome specializing in blues and funk. They were, for me, the highlight of the evening. They brought a true Chicago sound to Chicago, and delivered it with great style.

Following their energetic set was Lolita No. 18, four deceptively cute girls (sense a theme here? …three groups, each of 4 women?) who combined chipmunk vocals and hardcore punk. We’d retreated to the bar area for refreshments so were to far removed for iPhone video or pics — and even more fortunately, to avoid the spray of water distributed courtesy of lead singer Masayo Ishizaka over the adoring fans!
The evening was capped off by the biggest name on the bill, Mo’Some Tonebender (4 guys, for a change), billed as alternative punk. (More info here)

They certainly had the crowd pulsing and the floor shook with almost alarming intensity. Thanks to my trusty foam earplugs (don’t laugh; you hear the music perfectly without the damage from high amplification, especially the vocals, and my ears don’t ring for two days — I never go to a concert without ’em!), I was really able to enjoy the musicality of the group, and their passion. I was also amused by the quirky “banter” (and I use that term as loosely as possible) of the lead singer, and I quote: “Are you drunk? (pause) Are you drunk? (pause for a swig from his beer bottle) I’m drunk.” It wasn’t so much what was said as how it was said, like the way you might say casually to someone sitting next to you, “Do you like baseball?” (or some other non sequitur-type like). 

Best of all, the evening also served as a fund-raiser for Japan earthquake relief efforts with the proceeds from sales of some drinks and donations going to the Japanese Red Cross!

I’ll leave you with a sample of “Aishitereu” by Zukunasi, from their album, “Lovin’ & Feelin’.”

Akanishi Jin vs 2AM

Within the past few weeks I’ve had the good fortune to attend two big concerts for American fans of Asian pop music – the first US appearance of Japanese performer Akanishi Jin and the Korean group 2AM, performing with the Wonder Girls – and to be right up front for both. This gave me the perfect opportunity to compare the events on a more intimate level and gauge their impact on me and the audience, and the differences could not be more pronounced.

Akanishi Jin: You & I

Invited to perform as a solo artist at the Club Nokia in Los Angeles, Akanishi Jin had the opportunity to assemble a show and live (or die) without the help of his fellow KAT-TUN group members. This was a bold experiment for the young man: although he’s performed solo in a few venues in Japan where he has a ready made and rabid fanbase, doing a concert in the US would require significant preparation. The concert would be in English, and while he’s spent time in the States before working on his language skills and has made strides, it would still be a challenge.

But ticket sales would not be an issue: a significant proportion of seats were sold to that same dedicated fanbase from Japan, many happy to make the trip to see their idol perform in a more intimate club setting than would be possible at home. My concert companion and I found ourselves the fortunate possessors of seats in the second row, stage left, right in front of the steps to the stage where performers could come down and into the crowd. Needless to say, we were excited to see how the show would play out.

We had zero expectations, knew nothing beyond the work of KAT-TUN, and seen a few promotional videos. What would the music be like? Would he be singing songs from his “Olympos” CD, where he sings under the name Lands? “You & I” would seem to imply a very fan-oriented, sexy, intimate show. Yes, we were excited, and the Japanese fans in the audience a thousand times more so!

Jinpic

So, what was the outcome? How was the show?

Points to Jin for his hard work and his English skills, but this show needs a lot of work if it’s going to live up to the name “You & I.”

“You & I” implies that there will be a connection between the performer and the audience. With an artist who has made his fame as much for his looks as his group performance work, you might expect that Jin would reach out to the audience through eye contact, singing to the audience, and, one might say, make love to the audience. But if that was the idea for the show, it failed miserably in its execution.

From start to finish, Jin failed to connect with anyone not performing with him onstage (he surrounded himself with 2, 4, or more dancers in most every number), and often looked as if he was performing within himself. With our prime vantage point, we watched song after song for some sense that he was connecting to the audience – at one point he stood not 4 feet in front of us, on an extended portion of the stage and waited, waited for him to turn and sing out to the audience, look out to the audience, and waited in vain! At no point did he show us more than 1/4 of his profile, directing his attention to the action onstage.

He also hid his voice behind the demon autotune. Song after song, his singing voice was altered,virtually every stanza, every chorus, by autotune. Judicious use of autotune can add an intriguing note to a song, but every song? The entire song? You cannot claim to be a singer if autotune is your staple companion. The songs, some written (in whole or in part?) by Jin, where mostly forgettable riffs, simple tunes, simple lyrics. Perhaps the greatest disappointments of the evening was that he did not perform any of the numbers from the “Olympos” album, a generally respectable offering.

No, I take that back. The greatest disappointment of the evening were his wardrobe choices. Throughout the costume changes, number after number, Jin appeared in outfits that swamped his shape, hid his face, obscured his personality. Hats, hoods, sunglasses, baggy jackets, overalls, shorts… everything he wore seemed designed to hide the man within. At no point in the entire concert was his face completely visible to the audience. While loyal fans may find this acceptable and swoon with delight, I left the event feeling cold and certainly not part of the “You & I” experience.

2AM, guests of the Wonder Girls

What a difference experience was had just a few weeks later while seeing 2AM perform in Chicago as the guest of the Wonder Girls at the House of Blues! The 4 young men (Lee Chang-min, Im Seulong, Jo Kwon, and Jung Jin-woon) this week celebrated 2 years of singing together as 2AM and were on their first tour of the US as well. Maybe it’s due to the relative newness of celebrity, or the cultural differences between Japanese and Korean artists, but these young performers (ages 19 to 24) appeared delighted with the opportunity to connect with their fans.

Recording of 2AM performance from the concert, fancam by yours truly, and yes, turn the volume way down on your computer before playing! Screaming ensues!

The contrast between the two concerts was striking. Yes, Akanishi Jin was performing nominally as a solo artist but his show was cluttered with dancers (mostly popping and locking) and autotuned melodies delivered with an aura of nervous tension. Chang-min, Seulong, Kwon, and Jinwoon sang in turn and demonstrated the strength, beauty, and clarity of tone that would make each more than capable of a compelling solo career, but when performing in harmony they create a sublime sound. During each song they sang with visible emotion and reached out with their eyes and their gestures to connect with the adoring audience.

Unlike their “Oneday” counterparts, 2PM (who I had the pleasure of seeing as well 6 weeks ago and who also acquitted themselves favorably), choreography takes a back seat to the song and the personality of the artist and the result is harmony – harmony with the audience, harmony with each other. Their delight in seeing the audience was genuine and the love that flowed back to them was equally genuine. This was indeed “You & I” as it should be.

One can only hope that Jin will grow as an artist and shake off his jitters, leave behind the addiction to autotune, and learn how to connect with the audience. He would do well to take a few pointers from the 4 men of 2AM. As for 2AM, their skill is matched by their personalities and the future looks very bright for them. I hope that JYP brings them back to the US again soon – how about a “Oneday” concert, Park Jin-young sshi? This fan is waiting!

Tickets in hand, another adventure in the works!

I’ll just plead insanity right now… But Yolette and I are going to meet up in Los Angeles to get a taste of what a Japanese idol concert is like first hand. We’re going to KAT-TUN member Akanishi Jin’s solo concert at Club Nokia.

Ananjin

See above for why we’re happy to have row 3 seats. Can you blame us?

Late report from the Asia Song Festival 2009

Some family and friends might find it just a little crazy that I would spend the better part of one of my few days in Seoul to attend a concert, but for me the Asia Song Festival was worth it for a number of reasons: great fan camaraderie, a chance to witness disciplined yet rabid fandom (oh those E.L.F.s!), and a chance to see some of my favorite acts in action, plus discover some new ones.

My Golden Ticket to the Asia Song Festival
My Golden Ticket

 

We got to Seoul World Cup stadium early, hoping to just pick up our tickets and check out some nearby attractions, but it was clear that this was a doomed plan once we learned how the seating arrangements worked. While we were in a close-in spot (group 9, thanks to being foreign fans from abroad), seats were not numbered and group sections were already lining up and being moved into staging positions around the stadium.

 

Asia Song Festival at World Cup Stadium
Excitedly finding the right line

 

Tossing lunch and sightseeing plans to the winds we joined in the queue for group 9 and found ourselves matched up with some lovely fangirls from Singapore who shared our enthusiasm for the various acts we’d be seeing as well as other areas of the Korean pop culture. So, even though we ended up having our locations moved around the stadium 3 times (once just so that they could film us in another area!), waited without the benefits of seating or refreshments (may I say, marketing and merchandising opportunities missed here), eventually finding ourself underneath the stadium in one of the drive-up areas to the stadium, we entertained ourselves with conversation and watching video clips on my iPhone of favorite dramas and music videos.

 

Section banners at Asia Song Festival
Stadium filling in

 

The concert did not play to a full house which was indeed a shame because it did feature a number of first-class acts and a number of top-rated ones (not always the same thing). The evening kicked off with a few videos urging the audience and viewers at home to pitch in and contribute to a charitable fund, then promos for tourism to Korea. As we were already there, does this mean it worked or was wasted on us?

 

Warmup act at Asia Song Festival
Warmup act

 

One thing I liked about the Korean concert-going public was their dislike of standing when perfectly good chairs are provided and their disapproval of anyone foolish enough to block their view. After our long hours of waiting, chair dancing was very much in our plans and this jived perfectly. What wasn’t so great was the way people kept sneaking chairs into the section in front of us, blocking the pathways and generally being a nuisance. However, we were close enough to not split hairs on this one.

 

Another point of entertainment for me were the hours of people watching the long hours afforded me. It never gets old for me!

 

Stylish little fan
The music and performances though were why we were there and they generally exceeded our expectations. (The less said about Roslana, the better.) We were delighted that Show Luo from Taiwan kicked off the main event and laughed to learn later on that he’d in fact been so nervous that he’d forgotten the lyrics to his latest hit song! Seeing “Little Pig” and his crew dance and sing some favorite songs got the evening started on a high note.

 

View of the stage at Asia Song Festival
It paid to be a foreigner… closer seating!

 

Other terrific performances were provided by Japanese groups Mihimaru GT and the special guest of the evening, V6. The legendary Gackt also thrilled us with two numbers, showcasing his unique style. The home team was well represented too by 2NE1, Girls Generation, Super Junior, and Big Bang, each group singing two of their most current hit numbers. Super Junior brought fans excitedly to their feet when they came back for an end of the concert encore to do their big hit, “Sorry, Sorry, Sorry.” I was happy for the (albeit brief) appearance of the delightfully intriguing Kim Heechul doing his few seconds of fun in the number!

 

Super Junior at Asia Song Festival
Super Junior exiting the stage

 

More pictures will eventually be available on my Flickr site. Check back for uploads as I go through my hundreds of files!