There’s a prevailing archetype when it comes to rockstars. Chalk it up to nostalgia, but it’s hard to get past the leather-clad machismo of Joey Ramone types or the sexual gravitas of the world’s Debbie Harrys. Something about rock’n’roll refuses to be defined by anything other than that crass and brash humanity, especially with the suicide overdrive of early punk rock. The first few bands at the Empty Bottle on Saturday had it — that attitude is like an invisible but integral member of the band, without which few in this genre would find success.
And then there’s Shonen Knife. Just to be clear, Shonen Knife are a trio of three Japanese women, usually dressed in matching outfits (that night’s selection was a Mondrian-inspired mod dress) and led by guitarist and vocalist Naoko Yamano who has been making punks go “Hey! Ho!” since 1981. Being an Asian man myself, seeing the band’s set was, for all intensive purposes, like watching my sweet, little, accented mother shredding through an hour-long set of power trio punk, complete with an encore comprised solely of Ramones covers. In a word, bizarre — but just as equally magnificent. When you can imagine your mom onstage leading the crowd in a fist-pumping “Gabba Gabba Hey” chant, you know you’re spending your Saturday night doing something right.
About that aforementioned rockstar stereotype: it’s nowhere to be found with this band. But instead of falling too far from the whole punk fantasy, Shonen Knife held their own against the raw ferocity of the songs they were performing. Walking onto the stage, their demeanor was bright and unpretentious, mirroring the self-titled cut-n-paste theme song playing them in. Even as they offered a few heavily-accented greetings and launched into the first song, the smiles never left their faces. The cutesy vibe was palpable, but it didn’t once detract from the thwomping energy put forth by the band’s sparkly instruments.
There’s something to be said about a band like Shonen Knife, who still relies wholly on the honesty and simple power of their music as the message. The crowd at the Bottle that night was certainly receptive of the “pure as the driven snow” musical approach the band took. The idea of cultural exoticism is likely one that haunts Shonen Knife, since many people will likely know the band solely as the all-female Japanese analog to the Ramones rather than by their own merits. But instead of immediately refuting their status as an oddity, they used it as a platform to rock the fuck out. If there were any distasteful sentiments of “otherness” in the crowd, they were obliterated by the third song, when every person from the front line to the bar was throwing the horns at the stage, at the three headbanging little ladies on stage.
As the set closed, we all had no doubt that an encore was to follow — you come to expect things like this after going to a few rock shows. What emerged from that gap between set and encore, however, was of a magnitude that no one could have anticipated. The encore was a solid set of about a half dozen Ramones covers, shredded through with fantastic precision and mosh-pit-inducing intensity. I wasn’t there for the first waves of punk, but I like to think that by experiencing those songs on that night, I found a link to something genuinely similar, but more like punk’s bizarro twin — where shining smiles replace caustic nihilism and the matching outfits are made of floral prints instead of leather. Whatever it was, it shook the house with a force I haven’t seen in years and left an impression on me that won’t be leaving my memory soon, if at all.