X Japan at Roseland Ballroom
New York City
Drama. Drama. Drama. A bargeload of it follows X Japan wherever they go and it wasn’t left behind when the biggest Asian band there ever was brought their relatively stripped down show to New York City’s famous Roseland Ballroom. This concert was momentous for a number of reasons; being the first time these legends had ever played in New York City and the last stop on their first American tour. It was one band member’s birthday and it was sold out house. Admittedly, Roseland with its slightly less than 3,500 capacity is a far cry from the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome where X Japan sells out easily, but I suspect nerves were running just as high for the group on the eve of their New York debut. Considering the legion of US fans of every stripe, age and colour that camped out for four days, side by side with Japanese devotees who flew in for the occasion, as well as facing the infamously tough New York music critics, there might have been a frisson of trepidation for the band. Just as nervous might have been those ticketholders that are familiar enough with X Japan’s occasionally erratic schedules that whether owing to their drummer’s spotty health record or some last minute contract glitch could just as easily put the kibosh on this show as any other.
No one needed to worry at all.
X Japan condensed their ordinarily massive setup into the small confines of the Roseland space. As the house lights dimmed and an instrumental version of Say Anything swelled, the stage was bathed in a blue keylight over the drum set. Out walked the creator and leader of X Japan, Yoshiki, standing on top of the riser motionless as wind machines and dry ice smoke blew back the long tails of his white duster and his perfectly coiffed hair (- See what I mean about drama?). The rest of the band filed out and stood posed (- Except for guitarist Pata, who’s too laid back for posing.) as the intro music was joined by a disembodied female voice that concluded her welcome to the audience with “Introducing X … Japan”, which, considering it’s their first New York City gig was wholly appropos.
The bone-crushing guitar chords accompanied by Yoshiki’s machine-gun rat-a-tat only let up for Toshi’s piercing scream of “Jade,” which launched the band full into that song. Over the next two hours, the band would take the packed house of fans through a smattering their thirty-year-old catalogue, bringing their arena game to the comparatively intimate confines, complete with laser lighting, groovy backdrop visuals, heaps of dry ice and an inferno’s worth of smoke effects in probably one of the most expensive shows this venue has ever seen. For a guy who must weigh a hundred twenty pounds soaking wet and carrying two ten pound dumbbells, Yoshiki’s energy behind the drums ( if not his technique) is extraordinary, as his thin, yet muscular arms thump the skins with blinding speed, head of hair flopping about insanely like Animal from the Muppet Show. He would alternate instruments, taking a seat at a see-through piano that bears his name, vacillating between regal sounding classicism and pounding away at the keys as if possessed.
Lead singer Toshi’s crystal clear tenor could cut glass and just when his frequent screams made one worry for the condition of his throat, the fullness of the bottom range of his voice is breathtaking. The bass anchor is provided by the rocksteady Heath, who stood motionless through most of the show as an impeccably styled cigar-store Indian. The guitar duties are shared by the aforementioned Pata and Luna Sea leader (- And TDR interview subject), Sugizo. Midway through the performance, we were treated to a beautiful interlude with Yoshiki’s piano duetting with Sugizo’s violin shortly after the latter’s solo, which included a classily psychedelic rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. After having watched the normally flamboyant guitarist onstage as part of Juno Reactor, I could see some tentativeness on Sugizo’s part early in the show, but it seemed to melt away as the set proceeded and he became more comfortable. Sugizo has given a new and slightly different depth to X Japan due to his superb musicianship, yet one senses he’s always aware of who he’s playing for.
Here’s where things get bittersweet; the main lineup of X Japan was such a revered thing for so long that many couldn’t fathom the band’s survival after the passing in 1998 of their guitarist, hide. hide was such a fan favourite that the idea of replacing him was sacrilege, so it took a dozen years and no one less qualified, eminent and beloved of hide than Sugizo to even attempt standing in the same place as the coolest dude in Japan. Indeed, if intentions summon those from the beyond, there’s no way hide’s spirit wasn’t in the air at Roseland. During his chat with the audience, a soft-spoken Yoshiki, told the story of X Japan, from his meeting Toshi in kindergarten when they were four years old, to his assurance that they would be rock stars who would one day play America. He didn’t quite make it through the America part without getting verklempt. Then when the fans started shouting out hide’s name, the man threw away any notion of composure. By the end of the speech, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, including members of The Divacrew security, rough, burly guys who were bawling like babies. hide loved America; he was raised on our music and his innate grasp of American rock song structure gave his solo records their stamp. He lived here early on for a bit, made his last full album with a bunch of gaijin in his band and half his ashes were spread here. It was difficult for a hide fan not to feel some sadness at the fact that this tour and this night, maybe more for hide than the others would have been his dream and he wasn’t here to see it.
Anyhoo, back to the happy. Since there’s a quite a bit more fun and games at an overseas X Japan show, I was chuffed to see that New York was handed the task of giving Toshi a birthday to remember as the call went out on Twitter and to those on the days-long queue outside Roseland to sing Happy Birthday to the singer, throw some X-provided confetti and surprise him. Mission accomplished; Toshi’s genuine befuddlement after the end of Kurenai when his drummer disappeared and the entire packed house serenaded him and threw sparkly stuff in the air was priceless. So, too, when Yoshiki came back onstage looking like he was going to pass out from pushing a trolley with a huge box-shaped cake on top that according to him weighed “a fucking 100 pounds.” Merriment achieved, Toshi went back to showing the entire audience why he is one of the most revered front men in Asia. Able to whip his fans into a frenzy whether shrieking out well worn metal parlance – “Are you ready?”- or after a 20-minute call and response session before, during and after their signature song, “X”. Toshi: “We are …” Vox populi: “X!”. The band’s grasp on their audience was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Even the new addition to the X Japan songbook, “Born to Be Free”, a fairly generic, pallid affair, was sold like the last Magnolia cupcake by the magnetic lead singer.
After more call and response during the show’s encore, Endless Rain, where Toshi just let the fans sing the chorus over and over like a mantra, I felt sure that had someone whipped out Dixie Cups of special Kool-Aid, X Japan fans would have guzzled willingly and asked for seconds. In fact, recalling Toshi’s mentions about how much “X Japan was in all of us,” I predict a Church of X-ology coming soon. Rather than take that for granted, the band’s reaction to that devotion is anything but cool; stopping before saying goodbye to geekily take pictures while posed at the edge of the stage to capture themselves with their fans’ crossed arms held high in their patented “X” shape and whatever glowsticks they snuck through security behind them. Yoshiki’s exuberant declarations about how he would rock us were as much a promise to himself as to the concert goers. Apparently, a concert rarity, the Roseland crowd were given Art of Life as the finale, which showed us some more of Yoshiki’s piano virtuosity. The mood went from feeling like we’d all been transported into some chamber hall until Yoshiki pulled out some of the emotion he’d been feeling during his earlier chat with the audience and started pounding on the piano, clearly working out some issues in front of his awestruck and appreciative gathering.
I had it in mind to say how I thought the various and sundry audio tracks played by unseen hands was a mite distracting, my being a purist for live music actually being played live. Then I realised that this was not a night where very much of that was the point. While the band - when clearly playing its own instruments - are more than up to the rigors the strum und drang of their 1980’s metal hits (- Sugizo and Pata’s traded riffs are pure energy and symbiosis.), it was less about how well they played and more about them simply being there. After nearly thirty years of dominance and legend – and yes, drama - this was the band most of its New York fans never thought they’d ever see play live unless you went to the Land of the Rising Sun, or possibly L.A. That X Japan was actually on a stage in New York City, nearly arms’ reach away, playing their hearts out for those gathered was momentous in its own right for both the band and its fans.
Don’t stay away so long next time, gents.
~ The Lady Miz Diva
Oct, 12th, 2010
VIOLIN AND PIANO INTERLUDE
BORN TO BE FREE
ART OF LIFE
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