Yellow Magic Orchestra U.S. shows, with Cibo Matto, Buffalo Daughter, Towa Tei

Text, photos and videos by Nicholas D. Kent (Japanese Electronic Music) for Tokyo's Coolest Sound
Two reports of Yellow Magic Orchestra shows held in California last month (June 26 at Hollywood Bowl, L.A., with Cibo Matto, Buffalo Daughter and Towa Tei, and June 27 in San Francisco with Prefuse 73) have arrived from correspondent Nicholas D. Kent who was lucky enough to go to both. Read on for all details!

Yellow Magic Orchestra, Cibo Matto, Buffalo Daughter, Towa Tei

June 26, 2011 at Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles

Yellow Magic Orchestra
KCRW, a non-commercial National Public radio station in Los Angeles books a series of themed concerts at the Hollywood Bowl annually. Well before the March disaster in Japan they managed to book Yellow Magic Orchestra for their first concert in the U.S. since 1979 and also Cibo Matto for what might have been their first appearance as Cibo Matto since 2001 (though as it turns out they played some charity and warm up shows before this one). Despite living in NYC I figured this was too good to miss if I could work out a trip to the opposite coast.

I thought the name "Big In Japan" has a hint of irony to it. I'm not sure what other parts in the world use the term "big in Japan" but it's often used euphemistically about a performer who is thought of as no longer or not being that successful locally but apparently gained some attention playing in Japan. To differing amounts I'd say all these acts became better known in Japan because they were known in the U.S. There is no question YMO became famous in Japan and still are. They began as a sort of conceptual side project but turned into a successful band. In 1979 their albums began to be released in the U.S. and internationally, an extremely rare occurrence for a Japanese band at the time. Cibo Matto are a core duo of two Japanese women who in 1994 started a band in New York City. They were signed to a major US label in 1995, so essentially other than being born in Japan are an American band. Buffalo Daughter began in 1993 as an indie act in Japan and in 1996 were signed to the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label in the U.S. boosting their recognition in both countries. Towa Tei had a major hit as a member of Deee-Lite in New York. He was able to use his NY club reputation to cement a solo career in Japan as both solo artist and DJ. He's collaborated with all YMO members as well as Cibo Matto's Miho over the years.

The Hollywood Bowl has been around since the 1920s and being my first time there I recognize it mostly as being (unofficially) featured in Bugs Bunny's "Long-Haired Hare" cartoon where Bugs squares off against an egotistic opera star at the Hollywood Bowl and tricks him into demolishing it. The Bowl is an outdoor 18,000 capacity theater with a distinctive bandshell (perhaps an influence on the circular Warner Bros. animation logo background?) Somewhat disconcerting for me was initially they were only selling expensive multi concert subscriptions and the concerts themselves were many weeks apart. I guess it's sort of a fund-raiser for the radio station. But I also figured individual tickets had to either be sold or resold sooner or later as I knew the place is huge. Unfortunately when I could buy tickets nothing I know of fairly close to the stage was being officially sold. They do have a giant video screen but even that was on only one side of the stage. I guess the choice was sort of small and mid-priced seats I went for or really ant-sized views and reasonably priced seats. There were a good number of empty seats, though not that much closer than mine.

After finding out there were no T-shirts for YMO, an unfortunately boring one for Cibo Matto and a nice Buffalo Daughter one with no one there to sell me one I wore my Hikashu T-Shirt in mock protest. I passed 2 Japanese guys at one point who got the irony. I saw a couple anime inspired outfits and lots of kimonos given the many traditional performers on the loose. My award for best dressed was for a 20-something asian woman who wore what looked like a perfect replica of I could guess might be a 1930s Tokyo modern woman's fashion, hat, hairstyle, white gloves. Like to watch a cruise ship depart or see a tennis match in style. Unfortunately too many people were in the way to take a picture or find out more. She was gone by the time the show ended.

Nicholas D. Kent, Buffalo Daughter, Cibo Matto

The show opened with a local taiko drum ensemble and local dancers in a large ensemble. While still daylight, Buffalo Daughter came out dressed all in red and looking tiny on the huge stage. The sound was quite good and the bass was punchy. Their set was relatively short though Yumiko and suGar came back later to sing backing for Cibo Matto. Towa Tei acted as a DJ between sets as the next band set up rather than perform his music with a band.

Cibo Matto's Miho was the first performer to do much talking with the audience other than a short intro by a radio host. Lots of the audience around me were big Cibo Matto fans but I think even with them yelling really loudly, all the people dining up front and the huge open air space made it tough for the audience to generate much response that Miho could hear onstage. She said she regretted no one could really get up and dance there either. Cibo Matto had some pantomime performers in rubber chicken masks during "know your chicken" . So there was at least a little chicken strutting on stage compensating for the lack of dancing. Mi-gu plays drums for Cibo Matto these days (Araki Yuko, live drummer for Cornelius, the new Plastic Ono Band and Honda Yuka's band If By Yes). Sean Lennon as far as I know is back to "friend" rather than "member" status. He's performing in A Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger lately but has sat in on songs in recent shows when he's in town (he wasn't in LA). At the Bowl Cibo Matto did a medium-ish length show with their hits as the sun was going down.

YMO took a while to set up, though Towa Tei DJed a good part of it. He played a track with an announcer introducing Archie Bell and the Drells though it wasn't "Tighten Up" their song covered by YMO years ago. By then it was dark.

I was a bit concerned since YMO's live in the studio material from last year as well as some World Happiness performances were in a sort of traditional rock band mode, lots of Sakamoto on electric piano rather than synths, Takahashi on acoustic kit only and Hosono only playing bass. My hopes definitely were relieved and I was thrilled when they launched into their opener, a synth heavy version of "Firecracker". They followed with "Behind the Mask". Recently the talked about but never officially released Michael Jackson cover version came out. YMO did not include the added Michael Jackson lyrics though Sakamoto solo shows in the past have had vocalists include them.

Next up was "Riot in Lagos", which they've played at other recent shows. It's actually a 1980 solo track from Sakamoto. I do see how it provides a good structure to improvise, something that not all their tracks leave room for, while at the same time it has a strong bass line to hold things together. They then went to "city of light" their most recent proper YMO single and "tokyo town pages" an instrumental companion on the single. I think most of their prominent live shows the last few years have the same support musicians. In back of Sakamoto was Fennez on guitar and laptop, Tomohiko Gondo (also in Pupa) on a couple different brass instruments behind Takahashi, Cornelius (Oyamada Keigo) on guitar was in back of Hosono.

The next track was a surprise, as far as I know it hasn't been performed in decades, "Seoul Music". I noticed they did not include the often considered controversial spoken narration about Korea. Following was an other fun surprise. "Taiso" which is an exercise song with Sakamoto shouting moves into a megaphone and the whole band replying in english "and before you know it you'll be twitching!". "Tibetan Dance" was a the last track that all of YMO played on in the 80s until their 1990s reunion. It was a Sakamoto solo album track though they've been playing it at most shows since they reformed in 2007. It took me a moment when I heard it at "World Happiness" in 2008 to figure out the name. I was thinking, "ah hah", it supports Tibet though later I began thinking and still wonder how few besides the hardest core fans can identify the instrumental and make the Tibet connection. Following that are older favorites "1000 Knives", "Cosmic Surfin'" and "Tong Poo". Their concluding tune was another favorite, "Rydeen".

Out came Yoko Ono who managed to hook up with the show not long before the date. Something mysterious happened. A lot of the people around me really went nuts with excitement when Yoko came out. No one was hurt or had to be restrained or anything, maybe because no one jumping or dancing the entire show they let out all the loose energy shouted out their love. I mean she was in town with the Plastic Ono Band (with Hosono, Cornelius, Yuka, Mi-gu as well as guest Lady Gaga) last summer so it's not like a 30 year absence even though being from NYC, she does appear more often here. So I was thinking, are these people super big Yoko fans? Were they goofing off? Was it like a chain reaction? I couldn't figure it out exactly. Yoko did her signature screaming vocals while YMO played one of her tracks.

Finally as the really big finale YMO played a cover of the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye" with everyone joining in. The other bands and the big local dance and taiko ensembles marched out and filled the huge stage in song.

Yellow Magic Orchestra
June 27, 2011 at Warfield Theatre, San Francisco

The Hollywood Bowl show was announced 6 months in advance. American fans were trying to figure if they were doing a multi-city US tour. I thought not, if they didn't have a proper album. But I also thought of 2008 when they did a festival in Spain right after their bigger London event.

As it turned out I think one of those online ticket places sent me e-mail announcements that I didn't think I asked to be subscribed to. In this case it was appreciated because it mentioned a San Francisco show the day after the Bowl show and tickets were soon to be on sale. Originally I thought "why see them again"? But I was worried that the Hollywood Bowl is known for not running overtime and with all those acts playing maybe YMO was only doing a short set. I had Bowl tickets and I knew they were way to one side and halfway back in a huge venue. I was also a bit disappointed that I was pretty far back at their 2008 World Happiness show even after I spent the whole set getting on and off concession lines so I could be a good halfway closer to the stage than my ticketed spot. But the Hollywood Bowl meant the chance to see Cibo Matto and Buffalo Daughter too, whom I hadn't seen in 10 and 6 years respectively, so I decided to take off work and catch their SF show.

I had a nice pre-show get together with friends Terry and Nori and then a friend of theirs, Michael. The Warfield is a big old theater with all sorts of fancy vintage decor, carpets, etc. Prefuse 73 were the opening act. They did a set of dub-y electronic loops and sounds with lots of knob tweaking. My seat was 4th row but extreme left. I tried to get the online ticket interface to offer a more centered seat, it wouldn't and then I debated if I should try back later and risk a seriously worse seat. I was hoping for that kind of money they would let you pick a seat from those available. I tried back not too much later and it was giving me that same seat (because I was only buying one seat?). I gave in and it turned out to be tightly between 2 people and a few empty seats nearby. During Prefuse 73 I was eying all the empty seats. I was already un-wedged in nearby empty seat but half the front row was still empty. So I took a detour there as the lights dimmed though unfortunately I was next to drunk and rowdy pair of guys.

YMO began with an ambient type instrumental that was probably an unreleased improv. Turns out is was acting as a sort of substitute for the original video game sounds that precede "Firecracker" as it was the gig's real full strength opener. The next several tracks duplicated LA, but then a surprise, "Lotus Love". I think Hosono missed a lyric or 2 but that didn't ruin it. "Ongaku" followed. It's one of the rare Sakamoto lead rather than chorus vocals for YMO as his range is limited in comparison. Maybe the idea was for each member to get a lead vocal? For "Seoul Music", Sakamoto had his megaphone for the spoken word lines though it wasn't clear enough imho to risk bothering anyone if he indeed spoke the original songs comments. Another not heard in years mid period favorite, "Gradated Gray" followed. One interesting thing is many original US fans only know the albums through BGM. To know later albums they would have to be buying imports. So for whatever it's worth, rowdy drunk guy seemed to be a fan enough to recognize favorite songs but not say "Taiso" since it was only on expensive imports and the early 90s US CD reissues for a couple years. I took advantage by shouting the lyrics to him (more or less) though minding to try not to annoy other nearby people.

Yellow Magic Orchestra

I think in general their sound was more retro than their London 2008 shows (based on recordings). Maybe more significantly they played many Sketch Show and Human Audio Sponge tracks in London. In SF, "Supreme Secret" was the first and only track at either show from the 2000s Sketch Show and Human Audio Sponge era.

As a quick recap since even older fans seem to have missed some of their splits and reunions. Yellow Magic Orchestra was formed in 1978 while already collaborating on different projects, they took 1982 off to do solo work and then spent 1983 on 2 albums and a big Japan tour before disbanding. They reformed as XYMO (YMO with an X over it for contractual reasons) in 1993 and did an album of new songs and some massive sold out shows and went separate ways again. In 2001they all appeared made up as retired old men for a surprise comedy sketch. The following year Hosono and Takahashi formed a duo called Sketch Show and invited Sakamoto who agreed to guest on some tracks. It was understood it wasn't really YMO. As far as I understand, things progressed and Sakamoto wanted to collaborate more so it seems they became Human Audio Sponge when Sakamoto was collaborating. In 2007 I think they decided to take a step closer to being YMO and reprised their popular favorite "Rydeen" billing themselves as HASYMO. They played London in 2008 and while still technically HASYMO they appeared as Yellow Magic Orchestra since it really was tough to explain. I've heard in 2009 they dropped the HASYMO billing in favor of YMO and this year have released their music compiled online internationally and on CDs in HK for instance to re-establish their body of work outside Japan. (Canada and Europe saw CDs of the 78 to 83 albums in the early 2000s but these are sold out now.)

While Sketch Show put out an album and an EP and Human Audio Sponge released an album, reformed YMO just released 2 singles, one was Rydeen remade, and some live DVDs and odds and ends instrumentals for movies. So I can't help but think being YMO assures top billing at top live venues but hasn't proved to be very musically productive in terms of new material, at least so far.

YMO wrapped their SF show with Rydeen. Like in LA, it was played in their 2007 glockenspiel arrangement. Not having Yoko as a guest or a stage full of performers as a finale of course left the SF audience insisting on an encore. As a nice surprise they did "Cue" as their first encore then "Tong Poo". To me "Tong Poo" is surely familiar but isn't really a big concluding number. I would have thought they knew they would be playing an encore so why not Rydeen to end the encore with. Or maybe a song that forms more of an ending. All in all though, I was very thrilled and satisfied to finally see YMO, full length and close up. The shows were taped so I'm sure they will be on Japanese TV at least.

Yellow Magic Orchestra can be seen live in Tokyo, headlining the World Happiness 2011 festival on Sunday August 7. Details at Tokyo Gig Guide.

Tags: Buffalo Daughter, Cibo Matto, Cornelius, Towa Tei, Yellow Magic Orchestra (click for more info)

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Nice review. Nick, got to give us LA -based Japanese Music fans a heads up next time you travel out here as I'm sure myself and a couple other people I know would have liked to meet you thanks to your website. :)

I was at the Bowl show and it was good but not as good as I wanted it to be (don't like the Bowl dinner theater vibe). Quite jealous of the SF show.. Was able to pick up one of those BD shirts you mentioned. Also picked up a CD of a group that Moog was a part of Ikebana (shoegazer type band). BD did a couple of shows a few nights before the Bowl show starting in San Diego. Would have been nice to hear a full set from them as they sounded good and I think the latest album is pretty good.

Posted by Mark on

I caught Ikebana in Tokyo about 5 years ago, Metalchicks on the same bill and said hello to Yumiko. That was my previous composite BD experience, though I'd seen them a year earlier as a band. I guess it takes coordination at the Bowl to actually meet up with someone you didn't buy tickets with. The day before I was lucky enough to be tipped off Sparks collaborating with director Guy Maddin were playing at the smaller Ford Ampitheatre just up the road. I heard Sparks got very mixed reviews but it was fun.

Posted by nick on

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