If I had to pick one artist to break out in the next year, it would be Kishi Bashi. If you don't know his name yet, don't worry; you will soon enough. I've already heard his addictive burst of bubblegum by way of Japan and violins, “Bright Whites,” in at least one commercial. His debut full-length, 151a, was one of my favorite albums of 2012, and I would guess that by the time his follow-up drops, he will be a household name in the discussion rooms of indie rock.
The last time Kishi Bashi was in town, he was opening for Of Montreal, but these days, he's the one being supported by openers. On Thursday that opener was Plume Giant, a trio of Brooklyn musicians barely a year out of college who are clearly still struggling to find a voice for themselves. They brought with them a homemade marquee displaying “Plume Giant” in bright letters so that, in their words, they would no longer have people coming up to them after shows calling them “Prune Giblets.” Some of their songs were Mumford-style folky mixes of screaming and singing, while others were funny story songs. As long as they keep playing and touring and refining their sound, they might come up with an interesting aesthetic to call their own.
Kishi doesn’t have that problem. He definitely has a unique sound; it’s just that it’s is incredibly difficult to describe. When people asked me what kind of band I was going to see on Thursday, I could only respond with staccato bursts of seemingly unrelated adjectives: Japanese! Violin! Of Montreal! The concert itself served to reiterate this intricacy; when Kishi Bashi finally began his set Thursday night, it was to a darkly lit stage filled with eerie smoke and decorated with white trees strung with Valentine’s Day hearts. However, the decorations soon took a backseat as Kishi opened his set by reconstructing his album’s opener, “Intro/Pathos, Pathos,” from scratch, recording and playing loops of his falsetto singing and energetic violin playing on the spot. As the concert continued, Kishi Bashi brought out two other musicians to form a one-of-a-kind band. Elizabeth Ziman from Elizabeth and the Catapult handled drums, while Tall Tall Trees’ Mike Savino played banjo.
Wait a second, though. I don’t know what you think of when I say “playing banjo,” but it’s probably not what Savino did. As a big, bearded guy in the age of The Hangover, I doubt Savino can go anywhere without being compared to Zach Galifianakis. That’s unfortunate, because I’ve never seen anyone do the things to a banjo that he did. He bowed that banjo, drummed on that banjo, and sang into the strings of that banjo, and generally resembled Jonsi more than Sufjan Stevens. Also, his banjo glowed in the dark. That’s a true story.
The fact that Savino’s insane reinvention of the banjo never overshadowed Kishi Bashi is a testament to Kishi’s talent with two different instruments: his violin and his voice. At this point it’s commonplace for bands to turn three-minute studio songs into ten-minute guitar jams during concerts, but I’ve never heard of five-minute violin jams before. Of course, that’s just what Kishi did with his love song “Atticus, In the Desert.” In addition to that, he would record short vocal bursts and then put them on loop, literally layering his own voice on top of itself.
The concert climaxed with a stirring rendition of “Bright Whites.” An oversized white balloon that had been hanging innocently off the balcony for two acts finally went off like Chekhov’s gun, bouncing through the audience like a beach ball as a plastic green chalice-like object spewed out bubbles and the entire audience jammed out.
Kishi’s set wasn’t perfect. He still doesn’t have an abundance of material, and had to throw in a couple of '80s covers (U2’s “With or Without You,” Enya’s “Sail Away”) to fill out the set. That white balloon (that damn balloon again!) was fun for awhile, but overstayed its welcome when it started to interfere with the performance.
An eclectic performance filled with both one-of-a-kind theatricality (Kishi had a bouquet of Valentine’s roses that he would periodically hand to girls in the front row) and heartfelt love songs is best seen through the prism of Kishi’s onstage banter. He prefaced most of his songs with cryptic words, describing “I Am the Antichrist To You,” as his “love song to the world, beautiful, dark, fucked up.” But the pure joy that comes from listening to Kishi Bashi’s music is summed up by one of his final lines in a ravaged voice just about to give out: “I’m so glad to be here. Holy shit.”