Japan’s Shonen Knife are currently celebrating their 35th anniversary with an extensive tour, which took in Belfast’s Black Box as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. After a number of Japan-only releases in the early 80s, the Osaka group’s brand of infectious pop-punk eventually won western admirers including Sonic Youth, John Peel and Nirvana, and the band’s 90s peak saw them serve as an opening act for the UK leg of the Seattle band’s Nevermind Tour, as well winning gaining regular MTV airtime and slots on the Lollapalooza tour. Now on album number 20 and buoyed by the return of founding bass player Atsuko Yamano, their commitment to sugar-sweet bubblegum punk sees no signs of letting up.
Kicking things off at the Black Box were Cincinnati, Ohio’s Leggy. Still fresh from celebrating the release of their self-titled debut long-player, the power pop trio provided suitably bratty support as the crowd began to trickle in for the main act. Much fell on frontwoman and guitarist Véronique Allae, whose snotty delivery was often buried in the mix by her choppy rhythm guitar. Drawing equally from the new album and EP tracks such ‘Sweet Teeth’ and ‘Bruises’, the band owe much of their frantic energy to the propulsive drumming of Christopher Campbell. Seemingly coming from the school of punk that outlawed flashy guitar solos, the Americans turned in a set of similarly no-frills, thrashy, rockers that failed to stretch the three-minute mark. Last song ‘Peach’ threatened to be something different, with Allae and bassist Kerstin Bladh turning their backs on the audience trading licks. However, before it could develop into a showcase of the band’s musical chops, the song was over. It, much like the band’s set, seem to have finished before it really began.
The venue had well and truly filled up by the time Shonen Knife arrived on stage. Wearing ABBA-worthy, sparkling gold dresses, the diminutive threesome filled the stage with their boundlessly enthusiastic stage presence, right from the first notes of opener ‘Konichwa’. Ever-present frontwoman Naoko Yamano seems to have access to the same punk rock fountain of youth that Iggy Pop draws from, her 55 years counting for little as she headbanged along with sister Atsuo through old favourites such ‘Twisted Barbie’ and ‘ESP’. After the opening salvo of older material, going as far back as ‘Making Plans for Bison’ from 1986’s Pretty Little Baka Guy, the band played several songs from new album Adventure. The new release, inspired by the band’s love of 60s and 70s classic rock, brought welcome eclecticism to the set. It gave Naoko respite too, with drummer Risa handling lead vocals on the diabetes inducing pop of ‘Green Tangerine’, and Atsuo taking the mic for a barnstorming version of Wasabi, with the rollicking ode to sauce capturing the band’s almost childlike charm.
Taking time to thank the crowd in ‘Belfast Rock City’ for coming to see them once again, after their sold-out Black Box show during 2014’s festival, the band continued to blast through their colourful back catalogue. Three-chord pop-punk is a genre that can easily grow tiring over the course of a gig, although the veterans seemed to easily counteract any such complaints by never letting their energy levels drop. Leggy, watching from the side of the stage, should have picked up a lot from the headliners: Naoko gave a masterclass in punk guitar playing with tasteful solos that filled each song without being intrusive. Kurt Cobain likened his first live encounter with the band in 1991 to Beatlemania, and watching the band tear through numbers like ‘BBQ’ with the same feverish energy, his sentiment is more than understandable.
35 years and twenty albums in, Shonen Knife are far more fun than any middle-aged punk band has any right to be. The band who once recorded a tribute album as ‘Osaka Ramones’ seem to understand more than most that pop-punk, delivered properly, can be a source of uniquely infectious joy that other forms of music struggle to reach. Caolan Coleman
Photos by Sara Marsden