Sunday, April 11, 2010

J-Pop/Rock Stars @ Sakura Matsuri 2010


The highlight of Saturday's Sakura Matsuri (aka, the Cherry Blossom Festival) in Washington, D.C. was discovering two new Japanese pop bands: NYC-based punk rockers Uzuhi (the name means "Sun" in Japanese) and dance-friendly popsters Jonetsu Mary & Shabon High School from Kyoto, Japan. Uzuhi are the natural Oriental descendents of the Sex Pistols, while Jonetsu Mary carry on the pop stylings tradition of the classic Japanese GS (Group Sound) bands.

Sakura Matsuri, which stretches for six square blocks through downtown DC between 10th and 14th streets and Pennsylvania Avenue...



...is the largest one-day exhibition of Japanese culture in the United States, drawing a record 160,000 people in 2009. Now in its 50th year, the festival took place on Saturday, April 10, 2010 from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm, right after the Parade of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, and this year boasted over 30 hours of live performances on five stages. But the highlight was definitely hearing these exciting new rock bands.

(To see the beaucoup pictures I took of these groups, see my Flickr photostream or "Sakura Matsuri 2010" photo set. And BTW, thank Got-in-Himmel for Flickr's Picnik editor - it cleans up my amateur snaps into something almost presentable!)

First up was Uzuhi (oo-zoo-hee), who we saw on the J-Pop Stage. They were yet another J-Rock band from NYC; last year we saw some Twee-Shoegaze-Emo J-Pop band called American Short Hair and the Flip Video I shot of them has gotten more hits than any video I've ever posted to YouTube, something like 1,700 hits - even more than my brilliant experimental film "A View Askew" (which, at some 30 views has clearly gone viral). So, naturally my Flip camera was out of battery juice; undeterred, I took advantage of my stage-front location and whipped out my still camera to get pix of a band that was gathering quite a crowd as they were setting up. I wasn't disappointed - Uzuhi was AWESOME!

UZUHI



Uzuhi is:
Gosha: Vocals
Tsubasa: Keyboard
Katsuragi: Guitar
Shu: Drums

Official Web Site: www.uzuhi.com
MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/uzuhi
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Uzuhi/22872071530
YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/Uzuhinyc1

I didn't know what to expect of these guys. Watching the cool-looking guitar player setting up, I figured they could have been indie shoegazers, mod (after all, he did have a skinny tie and white shirt on), retro-60s GS, or even a J-noise ensemble.



Then the girl keyboard player came out and put a little stuffed bunny toy on her mic, so I thought the cutesy-kawai prop might indicate leanings towards Pizzicato Five-ish or even Puffy Yumi Ami-sh fun-dance-pop.



The drummer looked like a drummer, neutral flavoring.



Then I saw singer Gosha come out and I knew: Punk Rock all the way!


Knucklehead Gosha says "Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk!"

Imagine Curly from the Three Stooges only with peroxide blonde hair, skateboarder kicks, and a big-ass biker chain-wallet attached to one of those triple studded belts they sell at S&M shops and at Hot Topic shops in the mall. Now imagine him speaking with a Japanese accent. This guy looked intense and highly inflammable and I just knew that the minute he opened his mouth it would be with an ear wax-clearing Primal Scream the likes of which I hadn't heard since the days of Iggy Pop and his Stooges.

I wasn't wrong.


Tell me how you REALLY feel, Gosha.

But far from being one of those one-dimensional straight-edge/hard core punk audio-assaults, Gosha and Uzuhi hit you with their best hard-rock shot, with Katsuragi riffing away on power chords and shredding the frets on solos...







...and then pull back with downright melodic hooks, imaginative time changes, nursery rhyme chants and singalongs, even some straight-ahead emo-balladry, all augmented by an array of eccentric/electric pop sounds from Tsubasa's keyboards (which, a la Ray Manzarek in the Doors, also provided the bass sound for the band). I guess Tsubasa and her symbolic bunny (her name, I found out later, is "Peach Matsuda" - and she has her own Facebook page!) balance out Gosha's bulldog vocal assault with some cute, some Ecstacy to his adrenalin, some yin to his yang. Tsubasa is the rock-steady anchor who holds Uzuhi all together; if Gosha is the heart of the band, then Tsubasa is surely its soul.

Whatever the formula, the end result was simple: Uzuhi rocked!


"Ready Steve? Yeah. Andy? Uh-huh.
All right boys, let's go!"








One thing was sure, Gosha is teeming with charisma and boundless energy (a future sponsorship deal with Red Bull seems inevitable). He knows how to work a crowd like any good frontman does, easily running a 5K during his sneaker tread-wearing forays into the crowd. He's, um, a people person.







And even though he later told the audience that his inspiration was Johnny Rotten and that he had an epiphany when he first heard the "Sexu Pistols," Uzuhi is a lot less cynical than those London louts. Uzuhi may not sound much like the Beatles, but their bottom line philosophy is surely: All You Need Is Love. Of Rock & Roll, that is!

This is a FUN-FUN-FUN band! They stayed afterwards to personally meet and greet their fans and shake their hands.


Gosha & Shu inspect Katsuragi's penmenship during autograph session

There, by the side of the stage, I stood in line with a teeming mass of obnoxiously Otaku teenage girls to buy a Peaches the Bunny t-shirt (for me) while Amy more sensibly bought both of their CDs (a Recession-friendly bargain at 2-for-$15!) - the new one, 2009's Ongaku (Japanese for "music"), is in English, while its predecessor 2008's self-tiled Uzuhi is in Japanese (except for the last song "Dear My Honki Friends"). I think I like being in the dark lyrically because it's Uzuhi's vibe and sound that leaves the lasting impression, much more so than the actual simplistic rock lyrics.


Uzuhi ("Sun," 2008)


Ongaku ("Music," 2009)

Uzuhi truly seem to be loving life and living in the moment, and it comes through in their live show. No wonder one of the songs on their CD is called "Pura Vida." The perfect band for a beautiful sunny day. Which is totally appropriate since Uzuhi means "sun." Sun from the Land of the Rising Fun.

Ah, but don't take my slightly biased word for it. Watch the "Uzuhi" Music Video and see for yourself!



(To see more Uzuhi pix, see my Flickr photostream or "Sakura Matsuri 2010" photo set.)

JONETSU MARY & SHABON HIGH SCHOOL


Jonestu Mary rock out in their "Happi" coats

Jonetsu Mary & Shabon High School are:
Mariko Passion/Jonetsu Mary: Vocals
Takuma Okamoto: Bass
Takashi Miyahara: Guitar
Koji Furuta/Hurata Hirohura: Sax
Kazumi Kuriyama: Keyboard
Ishi/"Nissy": Drums
Official Web Site: http://jonetsu-web.com/top.html
MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/jonetsumary

Something is definitely lost in translation with this fun, colorful band from Kyoto, Japan. Like their name, which translates roughly as Mary Passion and Bubbles High School (Jounetsu is Japanese for "passion," while Shabondama is Japanese for "soap bubbles").

Unlike the NYC-based Uzuhi, it's hard to find out anything about Jonetsu Mary unless you know Japanese (which I don't), but they caught my eye because:
a) the singer was female,
b) the singer was a sexy-looking female, and
c) they wore festive "Happi" coats, which they then took off to reveal matching red-striped jackets and bow ties that made me think of Old Timey Barbershop Quartets and the Shakey's Pizza Band (ah nostalgia!)
The singer was very energetic and looked like she worked out (lead singer fitness always impresses me!), and I was fascinated by her attire, which consisted of a day-glo orange halter top with matching pants - of which one leg sleeve was missing to reveal black hosiery (as shown below).


Mariko Passion gets a leg up on the competition


Mariko Passion, upon closer inspection

Then there was her broken Engrish introduction to the crowd in which she confided, "In Japan, I am called a sexu symbol."

People laughed and I muttered to myself (so my girlfriend wouldn't hear), "Baby, you're a sexu symbol in any language, anywhere!"

I watched the rest of their set in awe, digging the drummer with his little yellow beret (he reminded me of Japan's beret-bearing King of Manga, Astroboy creator Osamu Tezuka)...



...the wonderful posture and Audrey Hepburn facial resemblance of alluringly alliterative keyboardist Kazumi Kuriyama...



...and the Geek Cool stylings of bespectacled guitarist Takashi Miyahara (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Pizzicato Five leader Yasuharu Konishi), not to mention the Abe Lincoln tophat-wearing cool sax player who looked like a Japanese Alexis Kanner (in his guise as The Prisoner's rebellious Number 48).



To get an idea of what they look and sound like, check out their official music video below:
Watch " モーレツ!!調教ママ/情熱マリーとしゃぼん玉ハイスクール" music video



I liked their performance so much that afterwards I bought these two Jonestu Mary EPs...





...but passed up their debut album (too much money)...


JM&SHS album featuring smash hit
"Violent! Mom Torture"


...which I think is self-titled, but I don't know kanji or kana, so who knows (it may very well be called "Obamacare is Satan" for all I know, though I doubt it). Here's a broken Engrish review from their web site that I love, if only for referencing a song called "Violent! Mom Torture" (OK, maybe I shoulda shelled out $20 for the album!):

"From Kyoto! I miss New!  Stupid but cool!  Entamebando new generation of pop! 1st ALBUM Mariko Passion Entamebando headed sex symbol of Kyoto Song, "Marie and Bubbles High Passion," the 1st ALBUM! Educational late boasts 10 generations of 20 SM-popular song "Violent! Mom Torture", a cool pop music acts "dazzling" hidden Tiaki Naomi classic "race to the last man" is recorded! Stupid Ppoku Ppoku shiny new pop music, but the old proposes."
Hmmm...actually I think "Violent! Mom Torture" might be a clumsy translation of "Moretsu! Cho-Kyo Mama," a nifty rocker that appears on their EP and sounds like a vintage soundtrack from one of Toei's '70s "Bad Girl"/Pinky Violence films.

Afterwards, the band made their way to the Artist's Tent to sell their CDs and sign autographs.


"Hurry, line up, Tom-san is coming to greet us!!!"

I got my stuff signed and when I reached Mariko Passion, I told her I had a pair of scissors on me and could cut off her other pants leg to create a cute pair of hotsu pantsu, but she politely refused my goodwill offer of sartorial spiffyness.


A bubbly Mariko Passion says, "Peace out, baby!"

(To see more Jonestu Mary & Shabon High School pix, see my Flickr photostream or "Sakura Matsuri 2010" photo set.)

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