A grey-haired 70-year-old Japanese man is playing his first gig in London. He holds up his mobile phone to the microphone and describes in broken English, the 2011 Tonoku tsunami that devastated Japan and the Fukushima nuclear plant. He plays a recording of the digital warning message from his iPhone and then his band launch into an acoustic Tropicalia inspired cover version of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity”. It was stunning.
I didn’t think the evening could get any more extraordinary but fifteen minutes later, the 70-year-old man, Haruomi Hosono, asks for the house lights to go on and starts looking for a friend in the audience. An immaculately dressed man announced as Yukihiro Takahashi walks through the stalls and on to stage to sits behind the drum kit.
We’ve now got two-thirds of Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) on stage. The crowd are going wild, the sizeable Japanese contingent especially so. They have seen their version of Kraftwerk partially reform on stage.
But scratch “partially”.
As the band strike up YMO’s “Absolute Ego Dance”, another immaculately dressed grey haired man walks across from the wings and stands behind the keyboard player, Takuji Nomura. He reaches over and starts playing over the existing pianist’s shoulder.
The new arrival is Ryuichi Sakamoto, back in the Barbican three days after his beautiful performance with Alvo Noto (read about it here).
For four blissful minutes, YMO have reformed. Hairs have prickled on the backs of necks. Stars have aligned. Joy is unbounded.
These are the types of evenings that venues like the Barbican Centre and the Southbank Centre excel in.
Take a central theme (an artist-curated Meltdown Festival,40 Years of Rough Trade, a celebration of Erased Tapes tenth anniversary, an evening focused on the Spacebomb label), create a diverse array of artists and present them in short digestible packages.
Light In The Attic is a Seattle based record label that specialises in brilliantly presented archival releases, either as re-issues of existing obscure labels or compilations of inter-related but again obscure material. Founders Matt Sullivan and Josh Wright created the album in 2002, after serving internships in the likes of Sub Pop and Loosegrove labels. Their approach is very similar to the Numero Group, who I’ve written about previously and provide lovely physical packages – lots of photos, sleeve notes, something lovely to touch and fee
They’ve chosen three very different artists for this evening at the Barbican Centre.
Opening artist was 70-year-old Willie Thrasher. Willie is from the Inuvik area of Canada. It’s in the North West Territories, close to the border with Canada. Whilst the Canadian government is now one of the model governments in terms of social justice, in 1953 Willie was taken from his school and prevented from practising his native culture.
In the mid-1960s, he was drumming for Inuit rock band the Cordells when someone suggested that he explored his Inuit culture musically. Thrasher focussed on his guitar and started crisscrossing America playing the music of his culture, despite losing part of his middle finger in a work-related accident.
Light In The Attic re-released his 1981 “Spirit Child” LP having had a track featured on a Native North American compilation LP. His career was revitalised, on a smaller scale to Rodriguez’s and he now lives in British Columbia and is a city-sanctioned busker.
Willie was an energising force opening the evening sat behind a huge bass drum thrashing at a 12 string guitar (“Heart and soul is what I’m known for“). Accompanied by his wife Linda Saddleback on vocals and percussion, his four numbers blew the cobwebs out. Blasting on a harmonica, the Native American influences were evident, particularly on “Spirit Child’s” “Wolf Don’t Live By The Rules”. We couldn’t see much of him behind his straw hat and mirrored shades but he looked like he was loving being in London.
Although billed as second up, Acetone followed Hosono and in some senses paid the price. The auditorium significantly emptied after the YMO reunion. Acetone made a very good fist indeed of keeping the momentum going.
A Californian band formed in 1992. They folded in 2001 after founder Richie Lee’s suicide. Tragically, Lee committed suicide in the garage next to their rehearsal space. Light In The Attic released a retrospective of their work last year which I heard in December as I was wandering around the wonderful Piccadilly Records in Manchester.
They were playing as a four piece which worked brilliantly. Keyboard player Jason Yates added some lovely electric piano and organ. Whilst perceived as being part of the “slowcore” movement from which Codeine sprang, there was far more energy. Singer Mark Lightcap played some wonderfully fluid guitar, drummer Steve Hadley worked his kit brilliantly and bass player Senon Williams pinned everything together.
The band drank a toast to the sadly absent Richie before playing one of their own numbers (forgive my lack of familiarity with the track names) which interpolated brilliantly Isaac Hayes arrangement of “Walk On By”.
This soulfulness was a constant through the performance, a spaciousness that kept the music afloat.
It was lovely stuff, even if its impact was diminished slightly by having to follow the Hosono set.
I’m still trying to fathom out Hosono’s performance. Much like Sakamoto, he’s got a reputation as a musical polymath. Light In The Attic are about to re-issue some of his albums and they are musically all over the show, from electronica, through folk to tropicalia and beyond. Hosono has also got an enduring love of video game music.
He’s had multiple careers having been in two significant Japanese bands, YMO and Happy End. The first played cutting edge electronic music and the latter folk rock, both within a ten-year window. Light In The Attic featured music from both Happy End and Hosono’s solo album “Hosono House” on their stellar and beautifully presented 2017 compilation of Japanese folk music “Even A Tree Can Shed Tears”.
The Barbican set was a curious but loveable mix. Hosono expressed his love of boogie-woogie and post-war Japanese western music. We got swinging versions of Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q”. He was backed by a quartet which featured a fantastic rhythm section in Wataru Iga on bass and Daichi Ito on drums. Ren Takada moved easily between pedal steel, mandolin and guitar whilst wearing a huge hat and a voluminous pair of peg trousers.
It was skillfully done and Hosono looked incredibly at ease, given this was his first ever gig in the UK. Once I’d recalibrated my expectation that the evening would be an electronically focused performance from Hosono, I relaxed and enjoyed the musicianship and love for the music displayed by the band. This is a band that have been working together for ten years. Hosono had commented prior to the gig that he was looking now to play more physical music rather than spend time in the studio. It was unadorned, just five guys enjoying themselves.
I don’t have any interest in the visual element during a live show. Please listen to the music
24 hours later, the evening feels extra special. To be sharing an arena with the Japanese audience and seeing their equivalent of the Beatles, Kraftwerk or the Rolling Stones appear unexpectedly was a marvel. Like these bands, YMO shaped how a nation was perceived on the international music stage. Their country owes them a debt of gratitude and it was a blessed privilege to share the mutual affection that was evident in the Barbican.
In an age when music is getting devalued, the likes of Light In The Attic and the Numero Group are keeping the flame alive for a well-presented quality product.
16 years for Light In The Attic and counting.