Shonen Knife Heads Into Overdrive at Red 7 in Austin, TX
Last long enough in music and you start collecting impressive numbers. Shonen Knife, the Osakan rock trio that runs the gamut from sugary pop to ear-splitting heavy metal, has collected quite a few. Just a scant three years ago, the band celebrated its 30th anniversary. This year the band released its 20th album, Overdrive, and played its 1,000th show in St. Paul, Minnesota of all places.
Fifteen shows later, Shonen Knife drew a packed crowd to Austin’s Red 7 comprising devoted fans and those seeking a respite from the corporate-sponsored stages of the Austin City Limits Music Festival’s first weekend. A thousand shows under the old tour belt might tempt a lesser band to phone it in for a change, but show 1,015 in Austin proved that the Knife is as sharp as ever.It looked as though ACL had won out when an hour or so after doors, barely a rabble had formed within the whiskey-steeped walls of Red 7. Then again, maybe it has fallen out of fashion to wade through the uncertainty of the opening acts. In either case, I was there and ultimately glad that I made the effort to bend an ear to both of the opening bands.
The first of these was Wildfires, a band I find myself tempted to describe as “mostly harmless.” In truth, there is a time and place for this type of jangling, acoustic-driven, sad-bastard bar rock, but without the slightest hint of dynamic variance (which is to say any sort of emotion at all), it was an odd opener for the ever-joyful Shonen Knife.
Next up was Sweet Talk, an Austin-based rock quartet that helped Red 7 shake off the sleepies with a performance that left singer/rhythm guitarist Stephen Svacina’s curly locks dripping with sweat. Face-melting guitar solos? Check. Tight, explosive drums? Check. Rocking out with a band that lists “drinking green tea all goddamn day” as one of their interests on Facebook? Big ol’ check.Outkast and Beck had long-departed ACL’s Honda and Samsung Galaxy stages, respectively, when Shonen Knife, clad in shimmering blue sequins, took the stage at Red 7. A quick turn of the tuning pegs and the band launched directly into “Banana Chips” from 1998’s Happy Hour. Then came “Twist Barbie” from 1983’s Burning Farm albeit it sped up from the album’s more subdued take. And in this way they continued, playing classic tracks like “Riding On the Rocket” (Pretty Little Baka Guy, 1986), “Animal Song” (also on Burning Farm) and “Hot Chocolate” (also from Happy Hour) and holding off on their newest material from Overdrive until the first major break in the show.
Shonen Knife has occasionally delved into the darker veins of ’70s rock. Take “Muddy Bubbles Hell” from 2008’s Supergroup, for example. With a ton of nods to Led Zepplin and Thin Lizzy, Overdrive is a marked departure from the groups recent, more pop-oriented releases. Head phones firmly in place and the rest of the world tuned out, I found Overdrive to be lackluster at best. But played in a humid rock club with the unmistakable fumes of cheap beer swirling, tracks like the ultra-heavy “Black Crow” make a lot of sense. Played live, “Green Tea” with drummer Emi Morimoto providing the vocals was elevated from a mildly unhinged rock song to a driving anthem threatening to burst at the seams.
As it turns out, Shonen Knife does take requests. The ringing of the amps had only begun to fade away when Shonen Knife bounded right back on stage to ask the audience what song they wanted for an encore. The band settled on their version of The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.” It was an act that may have seemed miraculous to the uninitiated few who entered Red 7 that night. How could they have anticipated that by night’s end they would be lifelong fans of a trio of punk rockers from Osaka who write songs primarily about delicious food and cute animals let alone losing their minds to a Monkees cover? They’re in good company.For more on Shonen Knife, check out Good Charamel Records or Shonen Knife’s website.
Photos by: Jonathan McNamara