A puff of smoke breathed from Cargo’s stage on Tuesday night, stirring excited murmurs from the crowd of middle-aged, tough-looking men. You may think this is an unusual audience for an all-girl band who sing about cats, but Shonen Knife aren’t all candy and kitties.
The subjects of their songs can range from feeding deer to bin collection day to having a jelly bean fight, but Shonen Knife can rip through the air with all the rock ‘n’ roll noise of their punk heroes, The Ramones, and scream like demons when necessary. The Japanese rock band is also known for being a favourite of Kurt Cobain’s, and when he finally got to see them live he claimed to have transformed into a “hysterical 9-year-old girl at a Beatles concert”. By the look of Tuesday’s crowd, it seems Mr. Cobain wasn’t the only grimy rock fan to experience child-like joy at the opening bars of songs like Cycling Is Fun or Black Bass.
Here to promote their 18th studio album, Pop Tune, Shonen Knife bounced onto the stage holding scarves emblazoned with their band name high above their heads. When they began Bear Up Bison a few shaven-headed men began moshing in the centre of the packed crowd, while front-woman Naoko Yamano happily bobbed her head from side to side and strummed her guitar completely unsurprised by her audience.
Yamano, arguably the Mark E Smith of Japan, is the only original member left in Shonen Knife. She warmly walked the stage as if inside her own living room and smiled to the crowd as she raised her glittery pink guitar. Bassist Ritsuko Taneda’s grin spread wide as she slammed into each song, and her streams of black hair whirled and whipped around as she performed for the audience. Her face was a vision of joy every moment she was onstage, and you may be pressed to find another performer so ecstatic to play rock ‘n’ roll.
Taneda stopped at one point to tell the room about a delicious burger she had eaten at the venue, before fronting the band for the song Sunshine off their new album, which burst open before transforming into a dreamy tune with Charlatans-esque guitars and strong vocals of a content melancholy.
Drummer Emi Morimoto was not there to just sit back and play either. She frequently stood up at her drum kit making faces at the audience and raising her arms. Leading the band for another of SK’s new tracks, her autobiographical Psychedelic Life, she sang about lighting incense and drinking peppermint tea, and tore at her drums with joyful but intense rhythm and velocity.
The set was as sunny and energetic as is expected from Shonen Knife, and the band encored after great demand and insistence from their audience, greeting the stage a second time in their own merchandise and playing three songs all about cats. The tracks from Pop Tune fitted in well with the group’s back catalogue, while standing out with a new maturity and emotional complexity that is new to the band’s style.
As Shonen Knife bounce along through their 31st year, they are yet to grow tired of music and the fun and joy it can provide, and continue to share it globally with a new edge and energy in Pop Tune.
Here’s a clip from their performance of Osaka Rock City:
Words, photographs & video by Amber King