Kishi Bashi at The Ballroom, Hamden, CT

I had been looking forward to the sold out, all ages, Friday night Kishi Bashi concert since it’s announcement at the beginning of the year. After a photo pass snafu the previous night, I was eager to photograph a band I’m fond of. I first came across Kishi Bashi‘s music several years ago while listening to Something More, an Australian radio program full of creative, electronic music hosted by Tim Shiel, multi-instrumentalist for Gotye. Violin virtuoso Kauro Ishibashi creates an impressive wall of musical sound, layered in sampling, beat boxing and distortion that grabs your ear from the first note and holds it throughout the entire album.

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A lone cellist with flower embroidered boots took the stage promptly at 8:30. Several of my friends have recommended I catch the New Haven based Olive Tiger and I immediately understood why. A mixture of plucking, strumming and bow work on the cello combined with etherial looped vocals transfixed the already tightly packed Ballroom. Olive played a few songs from their recently released debut album Until My Body Breaks and then invited violinist Jesse Newman on stage for their “solo duo” configuration for two songs. There were shouts from the audience of “I love you Olive!” as she transitioned from cello to electric guitar for her final songs. The volume of conversation quickly rose, I was uncertain Olive would win back the attention of the audience, but she easily did. Her calm demeanor was a refreshing sight.

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Tall Tall Trees, the second act of the night, quickly took the stage next. A heavily bearded Mike Savino arranged a suitcase of objects directly to his left as he bantered with the audience. The lights dimmed as the LED lights of his “Banjotron 5000” kicked on with a roar of approval from the crowd. Multicolored lights cycled through patterns from a remote control that Savino handed to an audience member throughout the set. Savino was jovial with the audience, teasing them as they hesitantly joined in on his song “SeagullxEagle”. His approach to the banjo was something I‚Äôd never seen before. He treated it as a percussive instrument, beating on the rim of the banjo with a drum stick as well as using it as a bongo drum. A few times, he lifted the back of banjo to his mouth to loop vocals. Another one of his toys, a plastic Ray Gun, was sampled during the set. There were a mixture of songs from his newest solo album, Freeways, and a couple I recognized from The Seasonal EP. Savino’s myriad of pedals were fully exploited when he asked the audience if they would prefer a “Sweet or Weird” song, to which the audience unanimously shouted, “Weird!” The monitors along the stage pounded so violently, my extra camera lens almost vibrated onto the floor. The energy filled hour long set had so much looping and sampling, I wondered if there would be any clearly banjo tracks. With the last song of the night, Something Real, Savino showed his was just as adept at picking out banjo phrases as he was at pounding out the beat.

There was a more noticeable break between sets until Kishi Bashi took the stage. They opened with an acoustic set celebrating the five year anniversary of the album 151a. Ishibashi was flanked at a central microphone with a stand up drum kit at the back of the stage. My normal reaction of “Heck yeah! A stand up bass!” was quickly replaced with, “Oh heck, a stand up bass is blocking all of my shots and there is nowhere to move in this room.” Regardless of my personal dilemma, the acoustic set showcased Kishi Bashi’s vocal prowess and harmonies. There was no sampling during this first set and although it was a more somber opening, the night quickly exploded in energy and movement.

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The excitement of Kishi Bashi’s music is translated into their live show. Ishibashi dances across the stage and engages with the audience, be it high fives to members in the front row or leading them along to complex clapping arrangements or finger snapping. Even from the back of the Ballroom, the fans were bouncing right along with the music the majority of the set. Band members were constantly trading instruments, showing their proficiency on all of them. Ishibashi explained the title of last year’s album, Sonderlust; “sonder” as the awareness that everyone around you has a complex life of his or her own and to respect that. The complexity of my life that night was trying to shoot around microphones and a stand up bass. His explanation segued into an announcement that Ishibashi is working on a commissioned symphonic piece to mark the 75th anniversary of Japanese Interment camps.

After a chilling solo rendition of “I Am the Antichrist to You”, the rest of the band returned to the stage. Ishibashi sat at the piano and announced he was going to play his oldest hit from 1971. He launched into a cover of Styx’s “Come Sail Away” to the laughs of the audience. Halfway through, a giant T-Bone steak came onstage and sang the chorus, quite impressively might I add, in what looked to be the most cumbersome giant steak costume of all time. I can only imagine the blind spots and trying to navigate the narrow steps of the Ballroom’s stage. Mr. Steak remained on stage for “The Ballad of Mr. Steak” and received a hug at the end for his efforts.

It’s rare for me to go to a concert these days where the bands are so evenly matched. Combining the local talent of Olive Tiger with the intense outlandishness of Tall Tall Trees and the exuberance of Kishi Bashi made for a seamless night. Kudos to Manic Presents for putting together such a solid line up.

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