Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Shonen Knife - The Portland Arms - 11/04/2018

With the evenings still dark and the weather still heavy and wet, there are few things more fun to do on a weeknight than fit a couple hundred middle aged alternatives into the back of a pub and have them remember back to the 90s, when all the things we were angry about were so much simpler and the NME was still a thing (Ha! Die, you devil, DIE!). There is a chance that someone in that room, other than the touch-screen wielding venue technician) wasn't around when people first heard of Shonen Knife, thanks mostly to the words of Kurt Cobain, but if they were then they were nowhere near where I was standing. This was a place packed with weary travelers, making a journey after a busy day of adult things to see two sets of sprightly journeymen entertain and enliven them all. The atmosphere before the first chord was plucked was a mix of apprehensively buzzy mixed with reverent anticipation. People wanted to make a night of it, then get back home in time for the next day.

First to take the stage were the unknown quantity: The Kolars. If anyone in the audience knew them they didn't give it away, as the reception to them as they walked on stage was polite, warm, but not too personal. Both members were bedecked in sequins and 50s chic, the guitarist's hair a majestic quiff, but with enough glam and modern touches to gave nothing too much away. Then the drummer stood atop her bass drum, and people just knew this was going to be different. The first three numbers were stompingly good rockabilly, stripped down and oiled up like a modern day Cramps that grew up on Happy Days and hope. The sound was embracing, the tapdancing drummer was an excitement to watch - halfway between a go-go dancer, a cheer leader, and an honest invitation for everyone to just have a good time - the lyrics were vivid and touching, and it if that had been the next 30 minutes people would have been happy with a great novelty Rock-And-Roll act.

Instead, at song four. they knocked it up a notch and threw in a mix-tape blend of their native LA's space rock drenched in pop sensibilities to the proceedings and sat there for the rest of the set, turning the audience from welcoming observers to won-over participants. Nothing to thick or confusing, everything perfectly placed and approachable, but adding depth and colour. All of this was helped by the duo visibly having a good time, Lauren the drummer more so than the sometimes zenned out Rob, the singer guitarist. If you don't want this in your car when you're driving in the summer then you are missing a trick, and if this act doesn't get more attention then I don't know what's wrong with the world.

As good as they were, the night was always going to be for Shonen Knife and their own take on power trio punk. Sitting halfway between early Buzzcocks, later period Ramones, and what Yo Gabba Gabba could have been if it grew up on the mean streets of Osaka. This is straightforward, easy to listen to, bouncy tunes about whatever Naoko Yamano has decided to sing (it takes a lot to get a cheer from the line "This is a song about my hobby, tennis"). Given that they have been playing music, that you can easily call twee and simple as a criticism or a compliment, around the globe for over 35 years, the reaction to them walking on stage in their powerpuff girls meet early 80s glam-metal costumes was about as welcoming as you would expect.

They had nothing to prove, as everyone in the room already loved them, and very little to do other than rip through an hour of tunes with minimal pauses and almost no mucking around. There was a little banter, but it wasn't clear if the minimal discussion was because they didn't have great English skills or if they just wanted to get on with playing with as much gusto as if they had just discovered how to hit their first note. It wasn't business like or disinterested, it was just efficiently wanting to entertain and show off their latest creations along with their classics. Their mood was infectious, the crowd lapped up every moment up, and whilst the whole thing only lasted an hour it was a perfect one.