Sunday 11 June 2023

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band at Shangri-La Shimokitazawa, Tokyo, May 30th - This Is Where The Magic Happens

There’s a neon sign above the bar in the Shangri-La venue in Tokyo that proclaims “This is where the magic happens”. There have been numerous books published on the Japanese misuse of English in their signage and advertising – indeed on this trip I’ve seen ‘are you excited stretch hero’ outside a gym, ‘do not flash your sanitary goods’ on a toilet door and ‘no dropping thing out of window’ on the Tokyo monorail. These signs can be confusing, bizarre and often downright hilarious but this time, there’s no sniggering at any poor translation as the Shangri-La nailed it perfectly. For tonight was certainly magical – one of those special happenings when live music truly transcends huge cultural differences, time zones and language barriers. Mick Head first came to Japan in 1985 with The Pale Fountains and it made a big impact on the Anglophile Indie scene at the time, leaving a lasting legacy that was apparent in the number of people in the crowd tonight that were there back in ’85. In fact, one of my friends even bought along her original gig ticket for Mick to sign. Now Mick is back and we were at the second of two nights with The Red Elastic Band at the Shangri-La in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo’s less commercial and less tacky version of Camden – it’s a lively area that’s crammed full of live venues, bars, record stores, vintage clothes shops and you see countless musicians wandering about carrying guitars, trying to look as cool as possible. It’s also home to probably the best ever Punk Rock ‘n’ Roll bar ever, the Poor Cow, run by Fi-Fi of the brilliant Japanese band Teengenerate. It’s the go-to place for touring bands to pop into to relax after a show, King Salami & The Cumberland 3, The Courettes have all visited and Baby Shakes told me about their love of the place in our Retrosonic Podcast. It’s an area that’s also personally very important to me as on my first trip to Japan in 1989, I was taken along to a superb Indie nightclub called Zoo which was an unforgettable experience that’s stayed with me to this day. So, to be able to see Mick in Japan was special enough but the fact it happened to be in Shimokitazawa, made it even better.

Opening up the night was Red Elastic Band guitarist Nathaniel Laurence with his second only solo live performance, the debut being the night before. Apparently, he wasn’t quite as nervous to be alone under the spotlight as the first show and he told me later, he found the experience quite daunting and if he’s going to try out new material then the other side of the world, far away from familiar, possibly more expectant or judgemental faces, is probably the best way to do it. Nat, seemed rather unsure but he needn’t have been, he did brilliantly. It was an emotionally charged performance which kind of took me by surprise, and I could understand his concerns as when you lay your soul on the line with such an intimate performance, it can be very precious. Opening with “Zombie Girl” by Adrianne Lenker he also included excellent covers of songs by Townes van Zandt and Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie but it was his own songs that really shined. Nat was visibly moved on a couple of occasions, particularly when he dedicated a song to Bill Ryder-Jones for his support and friendship through some tough times and also before the wonderful original song “Jaime” as he denounced the recent laws in Florida that will suppress minority groups even more. The sadly all too short set is received really well by the appreciative crowd. Nat has a great voice and if he can capture that raw intensity he showed tonight in (hopefully) future recordings, he could easily carve out a spot for himself in the somewhat overcrowded solo singer-songwriter market. 

There’s a brief respite and then the red velvet curtains are pulled back to reveal Mick and the Red Elastic Band and the first thing that hits me are the dazzling smiles as the waves of love and affection flowed from the crowd. The band certainly looked chuffed to bits to be in Japan. They opened with the brilliant “Kismet”, the first track from the stunning current album “Dear Scott” and you realise that ‘our greatest songwriter’ as the NME once dubbed him back at the peak of Shack’s success in the 90’s, has if anything got even better as the years have gone by. Songs like “Newby Street” from the “Artorius Revisited” E.P. and tracks from “Dear Scott” such as “Gino and Rico” and “American Kid” rub shoulders easily alongside the much-loved classics from The Pale Fountains and Shack. Probably the most encouraging signs are that the as yet unreleased songs played tonight promise even more greatness is to follow. The powerful, rocking “Human Race” ups the tempo and is an immediate hit with the crowd. Then the emotional nostalgia of “Shirl’s Ghost”, an instrumental teaser of which was included as the run out track of “Dear Scott”. Tonight, we get the full vocal version with Mick changing the lyrics to include tonight’s location “I’ve been to so many fabulous places, marvellous stages, beautiful faces, I’ve danced in New York, Paris and Tokyo”. It’s a beautifully evocative song. Then there’s more variety in the unashamedly romantic “You Smiled at Me” with its Burt Bacharach strains telling of a Parisian love affair. 

Mick looks in great shape and seems visibly touched by the reaction of the Japanese fans (not forgetting us visitors and ex-pats in the crowd of course…), he’s wearing a Love T-shirt so it’s no surprise that we get a rollicking version of “A House Is Not a Motel” which goes down a storm. But the audience really goes wild during the two Pale Fountains songs “Reach” and “Jean’s Not Happening” which are absolutely superb and spark off much singing along and audience participation. At one point, Mick gently coerces daughter Alice on stage to join him on “Broken Beauty”, a song they co-wrote and there’s a touching scene when they hug as the song finishes. I think one of the key aspects of Mick’s resurgence is the support that he is getting from Alice and his sister Joanne, who is also present tonight, it’s a tight knit family unit and is so refreshing to see. Of course, the Red Elastic Band concept was always meant to be flexible with a revolving cast of musicians and collaborators but the current, more settled, line-up seems to be an extension of the family and the freedom Mick gives each of the band members to express themselves creates a wonderful chemistry, particularly on stage. Too many frontmen and women from successful bands embark on solo careers and surround themselves with faceless session musicians – but I think fans and audiences really respond to that ‘band as a gang’ atmosphere. 

It’s a five-piece line-up tonight, second guitarist Danny Murphy missing out on the trip due to other touring commitments. Martin Smith on trumpet also shows off some nifty dance moves, there’s bassist Tom Powell’s smile as he loses himself in the music, long hair swaying (Tom's a popular guy, Mick superfan Ana once dubbed him ‘Jesus’ and another friend commented ‘he looks like Keanu Reeves’). Then of course there’s Nat’s brilliant guitar work and when you think he has to cover for the absent Danny and also follow on from the guitar genius that is John Head, it’s mightily impressive. He does such an amazing job and also adds his very own charismatic stage presence to proceedings. Phil Murphy on drums is another key component in the success of the Red Elastic Band as he nails the various styles and genres that snake through Mick’s music – tonight, I’m particularly struck by his work on “Stranger” with its Bossa Nova and Tropicalia feel and it kind of reminds me of The Doors’ John Densmore Jazzy style of accentuating the vocals and feel of the song. Having a supportive and empathetic record label also helps and Modern Sky have certainly delivered with “Dear Scott”, building on the great work that Violette did in establishing the Red Elastic Band with their stunning graphics and beautifully designed releases. Having Nathaniel involved in the recording process along with Bill Ryder-Jones superb production and orchestration is also a vital cog in the wheel that also includes the stunning photography of John Johnson – another important element that should not be overlooked and all the pieces of the jig-saw seem to be perfectly in place right now. 

There’s an acoustic interlude when just Nat and Mick play “As Long as I’ve Got You” and “Freedom” and then Joanne joins them to deliver a stunning performance of “Daniella” from Shack’s “HMS Fable”. There’s something so emotional in Mick’s music – the tough looking Scouser who has battled trials, tribulation and addiction as documented in tonight’s superb performance of the “Streets of Kenny”, he just has this knack of gnawing at your heartstrings and often at his shows, I find myself with a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye – it must be the dry ice eh?  I think it’s the way he wears his heart on his sleeve, allied to a totally down-to-earth attitude that endears Mick to his fans. I’ve seen some great shows by Mick over the years, but this was something else, another Shimokitazawa experience I’ll always treasure. The band were buzzing after the show, happy to meet and chat with fans, signing memorabilia and gushing about the fact that they were in Japan. They seemed as happy as we were and in these often cynical and jaded musical days, that’s a very refreshing thing. Super fan Hiro, proprietor of the unofficial Mick Head Museum (his apartment in Tokyo!) and his lovely wife Rie had made some Red Elastic Band Japanese tour souvenir wristbands which he generously handed over to us and it was nice to see Mick and the band all wearing them onstage. It was so great to be there to witness Hiro get his wish of Mick’s return to Japan and he made the most of every minute. He also stocked up on more merchandise to add to his huge collection and to paraphrase Chief Brody’s famous line in Jaws, “Hiro, you’re gonna need a bigger apartment…!” The only thing that could make the evening any better was a nightcap or two at the Poor Cow so a gang of us headed off to marvel and talk excitedly about the wonderful night that we’d all been lucky enough to have experienced.


For Mayumi, Kaz, Kurt, Hiro, Rie, all the Mick fans we met on the night, the Red Elastic Wristband Gang, Fi-Fi and all at the Poor Cow. For more videos from the show please subscribe (for free) to the Retro Man Blog YouTube channel here. For our features on previous Mick Head & The Red Elastic Band, check out the Index/Archive. For more information on Mick & The Red Elastic Band, check out their official web-site here.