Review Scene: Shonen Knife

Music and fashion were the passions at The National Gallery of Victoria last Friday night. The fashion was courtesy of Christian Dior and the music from Japanese power pop trio Shonen Knife. Whilst big in Osaka indie rock circles since forming in 1981, they gained attention on the world scene after releasing albums on K Records and Sub Pop in the USA in the late ’80s. Championed by the likes of Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Redd Kross, they have maintained somewhat of a cult status around the world.

Founding members and sisters Naoko and Atsuko Yamano on guitar and bass respectively, were joined by most recent drummer Risa Kawano for this tour. Dressed in Mondrian-esque shift dresses designed and made by Atsuko, their explosive brand of happy power Pop was high energy and deceptively heavy from the get go. It’s the first time Atsuko has been back to play in Australia with the band since 1997 when she was playing drums – versatility is her middle name!

With a backdrop of Dior elegance on the bank of giant screens above the stage promoting the current exhibition, the trio may have been tiny in stature but their sound was mighty. Ripping through their short and sharp Ramones like pop, the energy was constant. Risa Kawano was a powerhouse from start to finish with the stamina of a marathon runner. The harmonies and lead vocals from Naoko and Atsuko were magical with that perfectly matched tone that only genetics can provide.

Having released over 20 albums to date, the band had an abundance of material to draw from for this set list. Highlights for me were ‘Loop di Loop’ and ‘ESP’ from their 1997 album ‘Brand New Knife’, ‘BBQ Party’ from 2008’s ‘Supergroup’, ‘Wasabi’ from their latest ‘Adventure’, and their tip of the hat to their idols with ‘Ramones Forever’. The guitars were heavy and grungy yet the breezy and sunny melodies and the fun lyrics sung in English and accented with Japanese punctuated the band’s signature sound. Naoko joked between songs that they were still a bit hungry from dinner so they need to play a few more food songs giving ‘All You Can Eat’ and ‘Banana Chips’ a chance to make it to the sonic menu.

The reflective surfaces in the NGV’s Great Hall for this sold out show meant the sound wasn’t as controlled as it would have been in an environment more accommodating to a rock band, but as I moved closer through the crowd I could appreciate the sound fully as it came directly from the stage. Shonen Knife had the perfect on stage balance that comes from over 30 years of playing live enabling them to adapt to the conditions expertly.
Finishing with their cover of the Carpenters song ‘Top Of the World’ from the well loved ’90s compilation album ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ that broke them to a wider audience here in Australia, I can honestly say that this is the first gig I’ve ever been to where all I could see in the audience were people smiling. There was no angst, no shoving, no aggro just happiness all around. With all the turmoil going on around us in the world right now, this gig was pure joy.

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