Japan Nite 2012: Measuring the Impact of SXSW’s Annual Japanese Music Showcase
By quitting time on the last Friday of SXSW 2012, the influx of Austin’s employed barely registers a drop in the pulsating crowd already clogging her streets and bars. So as I double-time it over to Elysium, I hardly notice the throng; sun-baked from day shows, and downing over-priced alcohol at makeshift venues covering every spare bit of real estate downtown.
I have my own party to get to.
Seven groups representing seven very different genres await me at Japan Nite 2012, the seventeenth installment of SXSW Music’s Japanese showcase. Last year’s show featured the bluesy, soul music of the Zukuna Sisters and the oversexed, orgasmic wailing of Hystoic Vein. In 2010, Japan Nite played host to ’60s throw back rockers Okamoto’s and the electronic blips and beeps of Omodaka. Though I’ve got a pretty good idea what to expect from this year’s show (publishing a podcast featuring all the musicians on the bill kind of helped with that), I find myself growing more excited with each footfall towards Elysium.
Make no mistake that Japan Nite is the best show for discovering new Japanese music on American soil. That’s one hell of a statement so let’s indulge in a little qualification.
Yes, it’s true that depending on where you live, you can see a decent selection of Japanese bands year in and year out from the comfort of your own country. But consider for a moment who these bands are and how they’ve arrived at your city. Shonen Knife played countless U.S. tours and festivals winning over an ever-expanding fan base as the years have passed. Then again, kicking off their U.S. experience with a endorsement from the lost soul of Grunge rock himself, Kurt Kobain, definitely helped. Dir En Grey released an album stateside that actually charted fairly well on Billboard and then toured extensively. Bands like Peelander-Z, Electric Eel Shock, Boris, The Pillows and Polysics have toured regularly for more than a decade; slowly working their way up to selling out small-to-medium-sized venues when they do.
Not to diminish a single one of these bands, but the one thing they all have in common is their age. Music scenes change as swiftly as the tide. A precious few bands grab a foothold in the sand, sometimes because of talent and sometimes for playing the right gig at the right time for the right headliner. That’s why 14 years after three dudes who met in New York decided to form a Japanese Action Punk band, fans still head out to Peelander-Z shows to hear “Mad Tiger.”
For those who want a closer look at what’s happening now with the independent bands, the up-and-comers, the experimental vestiges of Japan’s incomprehensibly vibrant music scene, there exists no better window than Japan Nite; unless you’re willing to drop a few grand on plane tickets and suffer one particularly wicked case of jet lag.
But how much influence does Japan Nite truly have? Is it a concert series that has found its audience in the already-converted or does it succeed in its quest to stake a Japanese claim on the American music scene?
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