After 31 years of playing, Shonen Knife can still get people on their feet and dancing.
Shonen Knife cuts through the Tractor Tavern with punk rock charm
With beaming smiles, charisma and matching pink dresses, the three cheerful women of Shonen Knife threw up the Sign of the Horns at The Tractor Tavern on Wednesday night. Shortly after, they would be thanking the audience and head-banging again.
“When I listen to the music, I get power!” the three sang during their song “Pop Tune.”
Shonen Knife, a punk band from Osaka, Japan, has had a cult following since their American breakthrough Let’s Knife was released on Olympia’s K Records in 1992. It also didn’t hurt that Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain near-evangelized the group to friends and reporters. (In a 1993 interview with MTV, Cobain reminisced about touring with them, saying, “I was an emotional sap the whole time; I cried every night.”)
Watching the group perform, it’s easy to see what Cobain fell in love with. Everything about their attitude and showmanship seems so earnest and endearing that, if it's all just an act, they should still get kudos for pulling it off so well. What might be typically written off as a novelty -- an all-female Japanese punk group singing songs in broken English with themed costumes -- may actually be one of the most honest punk outfits still performing. Their latest record, Pop Tune, remarkably sounds like it could have come out months before or after Let’s Knife.
Lead vocalist and guitarist Naoko Yamono plays with a force and volume comparable to newer indie punk acts like Japandroids or Cloud Nothings, and despite now being in her 40s, she still holds up the bar for these young groups. Her guitar playing may not be revolutionary, but her steady guitar tone plays perfectly into the group’s exceptionally catchy melodic lines.
Bassist Ritsuko Taneda shares vocal duties but also serves as an unofficial “hype man” for the Knife. During most of the songs, Taneda would throw her long black hair back and forth while throwing up the Sign of the Horns between bass grooves. Every now and then she would walk to the edge of the stage, give a smile to the crowd, and then throw herself back into her punk rock momentum.
The lyrics to the songs are just as bizarre as their stage presence. Subject matter included an ode to barbecues and all of the delicious food you can grill (“BBQ Party”), the multi-purposes of rubber bands (“Rubber Bands”) and the sexiness and intelligence of Mattel’s most famous icon (“Twist Barbie”), among other equally strange ideas. Generally the songs were more uplifting and optimistic, opting for the lighter side of things rather than angst and destruction.
Shonen Knife clearly prescribes to The Ramones mentality of punk rather than the Sex Pistols or The Stooges approach, using simple four chord patterns and 4/4 rock beats. They even covered a couple Ramones songs during their set. The songs are so infectious that they stay stuck in your head. That is, until they start playing their next song, which will inevitably replace it as your new earworm.
To combat the Knife’s insatiable cheer, San Francisco band The Mallard played right before with a Sonic Youth attitude and sound that oozed 90s angst, but with a modern and psychedelic approach. Lead singer and guitarist Greer McGettrick was equal parts fury, charisma and voraciousness. The Mallard attacked their instruments rather than played them, and in contrast to Shonen Knife, they were brooding skeptics who were ready to devour the audience. A great companion for the evening, with potential to part the waves of indie rock and come across the other side victorious.
Yamano would share bizarre quips between songs that, told by anyone else, would be boring anecdotes, yet with her delivery they became well-received jokes. At one point, she described going to an arcade in Seattle.
“I traded my tokens … for a bottle of water!” Yamano exclaimed, to applause and cheers.
Such moments really capture the charm of Shonen Knife. Their sincerity says that they’re not trying too hard, but their live shows presents them as well rehearsed and thoughtful musicians. At the Tractor, 31 years after the band's formation, Shonen Knife showed that they still have the ability to keep audiences jumping and dancing with enthusiasm.