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Live review: A Beatles influence at 'Big in Japan'

June 27, 2011 |  6:02 pm

Yellow Magic Orchestra headlines the Hollywood Bowl's ‘Big in Japan' concert, which included Yoko Ono, Cibo Matto, Buffalo Daughter and DJ Towa Tei.

From Pokémon to whimsical techno-pop, Japanese culture has a genius for breeding mutant art forms.
Sunday night's Hollywood Bowl program, “Big in Japan,” served up a kind of sonic bento box of musical mutations that illustrate how resilient and flexible pop can be when it samples freely and reinvents boldly without fretting too much about “keeping it real.” Sometimes keeping it synthetic works just as well.

The evening's main course, Yellow Magic Orchestra, was making its first L.A. appearance since the group's pioneering use of samplers, sequencers, drum machines and looping earned them an international following as a cyber-punk, Japanese response to the Beatles.

Although YMO's music is as tightly assembled as that of '70s electronic progenitors such as Kraftwerk, it's also more playful and funky, less imbued with chilly techno-festishism, and its inventiveness places it far beyond the computer-game ambient noise that it superficially resembles.

YMO came to the Bowl with its core membership intact — Haruomi Hosono (bass and keyboards), Yukihiro Takahashi (drums and lead vocals) and Ryuichi Sakamoto (keyboards and vocals) — reinforced by a handful of supporting players adding Stax-style brass and pedal-steel textures.

Leading off with its best-known hit, “Firecracker,” the band whirled through a polished 12-song set weighted with older favorites like “Rydeen” and the disco-cosmological “Behind the Mask.” On songs like “Tokyo Town Pages,” the band's beat-driven industrial quality yields to a gentler impressionism built around processed horn squawks and sounds like glass shards cascading through softly rippling keyboard notes — Claude Debussy by way of Giorgio Moroder. Surfer guitar and psychedelia augment YMO's aural toolkit.

The evening's lineup also included the newly reunited Japanese-Manhattan trip-hop duo Cibo Matto, cheerfully pummeling the Hello Kitty cuteness of conventional girl-pop bands with jazzy, ominously ethereal keyboard trances, spiked with Dada-ist rap lyrics that sound like spooky haikus on tunes such as “Beef Jerkey,” “Know Your Chicken” and “Birthday Cake.”

Also in the house was the guitar-driven progressive-rock trio Buffalo Daughter, who stitch reverb-y blues-guitar chords, sampled percussion and distorted vocals into aggressive art-rock played at bullet-train tempos. Spinning records between acts, DJ Towa Tei, a digital wizard with a taste for suave funk grooves, stoked his successful solo career and rekindled fond memories of his former group, Deee-Lite.

Book-ending the night, the Taiko Center of Los Angeles let loose with an opening salvo of traditional Japanese drumming, and Yoko Ono, the high priestess of East-West art-pop, helped close the show by mincing about while invoking world peace and emitting electronic shrieks that suggested Shamu the Killer Whale channeling John Cage.

That set up YMO's finale, a cover of Lennon-McCartney's “Hello Goodbye,” bringing this intriguing musical mystery tour to a satisfying close.

ALSO:

Album review: Dolly Parton's 'Better Day'

Fresh spin on Buddy Holly

Foster the People: Moving beyond 'Pumped Up Kicks'

-- Reed Johnson

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