While some of the lush melodies were generated through looped vocal layers, just as often they were the combined result of all five impressive musicians on stage.
Delmar Hall, St. Louis
For starters, what a lovely addition Delmar Hall is to the St. Louis scene! A wee version of The Pageant, located exactly next to its predecessor, Delmar Hall was a perfectly sized and designed venue for Kishi Bashi. The venue brings some of the best features of its parent venue, but allows fans of smaller touring acts to benefit from the variety of vantage points, minus the balcony. Built in the old Big Shark bike shop, Delmar Hall mimics all the essential floor space of The Pageant, with table and chairs sets, stools and railings, and a bar in a separate room, so guests can comfortably chat barside without disturbing the sound in the main venue.
Lone singer/songwriter/guitarist Twain (stage name for Mat Davidson) opened the set, on this occasion clean-shaven with two little Willie Nelson braids and a man bun for the rest. Any worries that the one-man act would struggle to hold the crowd were quickly dispelled, as he filled the room with a powerful voice emoting sweet, sad poetry. Like a weepy Jeff Buckley or a more resigned Angel Olsen, Twain joked with the crowd after singing about his three-step program (which involves walking to the fridge, splashing cold water on your face, and having the foresight to think to put the water in the fridge). His bare face contorted like a young Crispin Glover to push the vocal power through the melancholy lyrics. He probably could have held his own without the mic, and the crowd would have shaken their heads nonetheless, choked-up and wowed at this gripping lyricist.
Opening the Kishi Bashi set, the choice and performance of “Statues in a Gallery” was my only complaint in what was an exceptionally talented and impressive evening (well, there are two, actually, the other venue-related). “Statues” is one of my favorite tracks on the new album, occurring near the end with all manner of speed-altered vocals and synth accents. It’s a last hopeful grasp at a feeling about to slip away. To pull the track out of its progression, presented in a stripped-down version, felt an odd starting point for the set and a downbeat show opener. Perhaps a product of my high expectations for this particular piece, it seemed an underwhelming introduction to the evening, especially when followed by another lower-keyed version, this time a slowed-down “Big Star.” Both songs felt more appropriately placed later in the set, after all the big guns, cruising with simplified, experimental versions.
“M’lover,” on the other hand, dazzled with a faithful-and-then-some reproduction of its glorious recorded version, surpassing expectations with a mid-song breakdown into its component parts. The addition of Nick Takénobu Ogawa on cello brought the best of both Kishi Bashi touring assemblages, with a whiff of the chamber quartet effect adding to Tall Tall Trees (Mike Savino) on light-up banjo-drum, Seth Hendershot on drums, Daniel Brunner on strings and odds and ends, and everyone on vocals from time to time. This dynamic group of Renaissance musicians made all manner of contributions throughout the evening. While some of the lush melodies were generated through looped vocal layers, just as often they were the combined result of all five impressive musicians on stage.
Brunner and Savino periodically swapped stations at either end of the stage, taking turns on bass, synth, guitar, and percussion. In one stunning example, the seductive “Atticus in the Desert” featured Savino playing banjo with a bow, and then conjuring “the most inspired solo of the tour,” a throbbing hand-drumming solo on his trademark banjo-drum (which he also at times played with a mallet). And for those really big moments, when bowing or plucking or strumming or drumming alone just isn’t enough, Savino switched on the lights so that the head of the banjo flickered in the round like an encased mini raver hoop. Later, after a brilliant rendition of “Carry on, Phenomenon,” Kaoru Ishibashi and Savino faced off in an intense duo, Ishibashi’s fingers tap dancing across the strings in response to Savino’s intrigue.
A fan favorite, the classic “Bright Whites,” drew all the phones out of pockets to record a classic example of music magic being made onstage. All the bandmates pitched in on vocals, and Brunner provided the bunny-foo-foo bouncy bass on synth before Ishibashi loosened his tie for his first crack at beatboxing for the evening. While he may have thought “that sounds weird,” to rest of us, it sounded like topsy-turvy gold. “Who’d You Kill” shifted the bass from chipper to funky, and “Say Yeah” had Brunner jump again to the other side of the stage for a super classy disco flute solo.
An interlude had everyone but Ishibashi and Takénobu depart the stage, the two pairing strings in a gorgeous duo for “Bittersweet Genesis for Him AND Her” and the gut-wrenching “I Am the Antichrist to You”—and herein lies my second gripe with the evening. I stood transfixed by the delicate, sobering lamentation of violin and cello, holding my breath, everyone silent in rapt attention—until coarsely interrupted with a “Drinks? Excuse me, drinks?” as the floor server weaved her way through the audience. It was a jarring disruption of a beautiful moment, now stepping out of the way as a dude rifles through his wallet and the server shuffled cups and bills. I can’t imagine it’s a great gig for the server, either, negotiating the crowd with a tray full of drinks. I’m hoping this annoyance gets discontinued as a disruptive frivolity that was attempted and thought better of.
The bandmates returned plus one for the stunning reveal of Kishi Bashi’s new mascot, Mr. Steak, in the polyfoam flesh. That’s right, a giant steak with arms and legs danced in the middle of the band, lasciviously “drowned in salt and pepper.” Ishibashi launched into the crowd, surfing his way toward a steak-painted violin being carried out to meet him in the middle of the floor. Dangling at the end of a telescopic pole, the steak violin wound its way through the crowd, grazing the top of the crowd’s heads, and accidentally jostling the bow from the pole to the floor. Thankfully, my husband found the bow propped up against his neighbor’s leg and marched forward, bow overhead, returning it to its rightful place, if somewhat worse for wear, judging by Ishibashi’s expression when he started to play that splendid little steak violin.
Closing out the set, “Began with a Burst” began with a “Don’t Vote for Trump” loop and other vocal contortions, and had the eager crowd clapping in no time, concluding with Brunner demonstrating his new skills on melodiphone. All exited the stage briefly, returning in a barbershop quintet arrangement, huddled around a mic with a few spare instruments for Q&A and the most immaculate harmony on Manchester.
Ultimately, Ishibashi assembled for this tour a splendid collection of musicians, with instrumental and vocal chops and an aura of creative buoyancy. He conducted and challenged his band to maximize the quality and variety of sound they produced, in solos, duos, loops and improvisations, learning new instruments and recreating old favorites, and then masterfully led them to shine and meld throughout the evening. | Courtney Dowdall