REVIEW: Shonen Knife at the San Fran, 12th November 2019
When Shonen Knife were billed for a show at the San Fran on the 12th of November, I'd never heard of them, having a fairly limited knowledge of Japanese rock, but the idea of an all-female alternative rock group active for nearly 40 years with influences from pop, punk rock and classic rock intrigued me. I looked up some of their music and the sound sold me instantly. I don't speak Japanese, of course, but legibility is of course never necessary in vocals, if you ask me - A vocalist can carry an energy that works as an instrument all it's own, which Shonen Knife no doubt accomplished.
I arrived early, eager not to miss anything and not experienced enough with shows to know when the right time to be late is. Credit to the openers, the Hamilton-based Contenders who brought a ton of energy to a relatively small crowd, a heavy, punk rock which left my neck already stiff and in pain from excessive headbanging. I would have been interested in moshing, but nobody seemed to be eager to get physical, so I contained my energy to a radius around me as I stood right at the front, proceeding to blow out my eardrums. My only criticism would be that the microphone could have used a boost, since I couldn't really make out anything the vocalist was saying, but that might just be a symptom of my choice to stand up directly in front of the stage.
After a great performance from the openers, the crowd began to fill and Shonen Knife took to the stage to a chorus of great cheers. Naoko Yamano, the guitarist-vocalist gave some words about her affection for Wellington and other performances she'd given there before they launched into their first performance of the evening. The trio delivered with the formula that's given them such long-term success, instrumentals that range from jaunty and old-school to heavy metal-tinged bangers. (The closing song during the encore in particular strongly reminded me of Iron Man by Black Sabbath!) The vocals came through much more clearly than the openers, helped of course by the harmony between the three women. Every now and then they'd stop to give the crowd a briefing on the meaning of a song or simply chat, thank everyone for the applause and discuss this or that - For example, to my surprise, that bassist Atsuko Yamano had crafted their outfits for the evening.
(Not to diminish the other two by any means, but I'll have to give a special credit to the drummer, Risa Kawano, who seemed to be enjoying herself and played her heart out with a grin the whole way through.) The hard rock, of course, contrasts with the sugary sweet lyrical themes ranging from public parks to Capybaras, and of course, candy in many different forms. One of the highlights of the night came with the performance of the title track of their latest album, where after a repeat of the Japanese "amai" (for 'sweet'), the crowd responded with a yell of "Candy!" It's this peculiar yet very functional combination that makes the band so compelling, and I understand what drove Kurt Cobain to work with them in the '90s. The evening blew by in what seemed like an instant despite a fairly stacked set list of songs new and old, and as soon as they left we all erupted into a call for an encore, granted in the form of a long climax of radical instrumental licks and gorgeous vocals.
If you get the chance to see them - Don't miss out.
Shonen Knife's latest album, Sweet Candy Power is available now, and they have further performances in New Zealand tonight at the Yot Club in Raglan and on the 14th at the Whammy in Auckland.