By: Tiffany Mull
Kishi Bashi’s new album, Omoiyari (which roughly translates as “empathy” or “having compassion”), is a concept album that draws inspiration from the lives and experiences of those Japanese Americans sent to internment camps in the xenophobic hysteria that swept the nation after the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II. Kaoru Ishibashi traveled to the internment camps—Manzanar, Tule Lake, Heart Mountain, Jerome, Rohwer—to get a sense of the place and ordeals through physical surroundings and photographs. He reached into that history, those stories, and found a sort of aching beauty in all that sadness and injustice, as expressed by the resilience of those people whose lives were wrongfully upended. Early 2020 will see the release of a documentary about the making of Omoiyari.
The evening opened with the refreshingly-good Takénobu, a duo composed of cellist Nick Takenobu Ogawa and fiancé and violinist Kathryn Koch. They opened with “Toki Doki,” heavy on looping and pizzicato with Nick making creative use of his cello to provide percussion. They then launched into the instrumental “Reversing” before declaring that Salt Lake City was the best crowd they’ve had all tour. “Swaying Trees” was a celebration of nature and “Light the Flame” featured percussive slaps on the cello. The couple closed by performing “Deeper than the Vine,” with which Nick had won a songwriting competition, beating Lizzy Grant who would later go on to become Lana Del Rey (they’re friends on Myspace).
The crowd began chanting “Kishi Bashi” to summon him to the stage. He took the stage and played “Marigolds” from his latest album, a piece that opens with delicate pizzicato and explores the effort of understanding the worldview of a person from a different era in order to obtain cross-generational understanding. Next was “F Delano,” a song that references the American president who ordered and condoned the internment of American citizens with Japanese ancestry. (I’m pretty sure that “F” does not stand for “Franklin” in this song.)
“Penny Rabbit and Summer Bear” was dancy and lighthearted. During the bass-heavy “Hey Big Star,” Kishi lost his jacket, revealing rainbow suspenders, and took the keyboard. Kishi Bashi is a serious musician and he has clearly recruited talent of similar caliber to be part of his band. Pip the Pansy carried her flute in a quiver on her back to be whipped out in between her backing vocals and keyboard work. Dave Kirslis provided relentless guitar work and Mike Savino switched between bass guitar, banjo, and upright bass.
Kishi Bashi’s whole band made creative use of their instruments. During “Say Yeah,” the drummer (Ryan Oslance) took out drumsticks with bells tied to them. Throughout the concert, the drummer made deft use of padded mallets, brushes, drumsticks, bells, and even a chain which he dangled across the cymbals for a unique sound. Mike Savino made occasional use of a padded drum mallet on his banjo.
The exultant “Carry On Phenomenon” featured a jumping jam session and ended softly with the flute and a plucked violin. “Theme from Jerome” was written during a visit to an internment camp in Arkansas. It’s a still, grieving number about the loss of language and culture in the immigrant experience. Mike Savino traded the bass guitar for a banjo to accompany Kishi Bashi’s violin, vocals, and keyboarding with the flute flirting around the song’s periphery. The drummer dribbled a chain on the cymbals to great effect.
The musicians repeatedly complimented the crowd throughout the night, insisting we were their best audience to date. Kishi even improvised a song dedicated to Salt Lake City. The Takénobu duo were invited back on stage to participate in an epic performance of “Violin Tsunami” with Kathryn taking lead violin. “Atticus in the Desert” started soft and turned into a hard jam. A dancing lady in a steak costume bounced onto stage to be serenaded by a cover of “I had the Time of my Life,” followed, of course, by “Mr. Steak.” Kishi Bashi’s joy and energy are contagious; the audience crackled with it. The show ended with “It All Began with a Burst” during which Kishi Bashi laid down some wicked beatboxing and crowd surfed with an intricate bird puppet. Before walking off the stage he declared, “This was the best show all tour, Salt Lake City!”
For the encore, the band unplugged and joined the crowd in the middle of the venue under the disco ball. We were treated with “Annie, Heart Thief of the Sea,” “Manchester,” and “Summer of ’42,” a bittersweet number about love found and love lost during wartime. I’ve been to hundreds of concerts. This was easily one of the best.
Penny Rabbit and Summer Bear
Hey Big Star
Carry on Phenomenon
Theme from Jerome
Improvised Ode to Salt Lake City
This Must Be the Place (Talking Heads cover)
Improvised Instrumental with Violin and Banjo
Q & A
Can’t Let Go, Juno
Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!
Atticus, in the Desert
The Time of My Life (cover)
It All Began With a Burst
Annie, Heart Thief of the Sea
Summer of ‘42