While I am by no means a big Miyavi fan, I know of him. A friend interviewed him a few months ago, and was super-excited to be doing so, and I saw his appearance on Ellen when he began his real, concerted efforts to crack America. I became vaguely aware of him as a visual-kei artist and have remained vaguely aware of him as he reinvented himself as an idiosyncratic rocker with a peculiar guitar technique.
Knowing he’s pretty huge here, I would never have forked out the high ticket prices to go and see him, but I got free tickets through a friend, and I was very happy to go and experience what I knew was a very popular live act in his home territory. He may divide his time between here and the States and heavily hint that he’s every bit as popular in America as he his here, but that’s all image. He’ll fill a decent venue with J-rock fans, but remains very niche and I doubt even most rock fans in America are familiar with him.
Anyway, we got into the cavernous venue, Coast, after enduring the fair-but-mostly-frustrating-and-meaningless Japanese gig venue entry system, which involves going inside in order of ticket number. I immediately saw that the place had a superb sound system, and will be very happy if I get to play on a stage like that at some point. Got a spot around the middle with my friends and waited for the absurdly early kick-off time. He started playing at around 6:30pm with no support act. It feels very odd to come out of a gig at around 9.
Miyavi plays with just one other musician onstage, a very ordinary yet strangely loveable drummer called Bobo. It seems that at some point recently, Miyavi tried using a female keyboard player/DJ – as, after all, there’s quite a bit of playback in his lives, as well as extensive use of looping pedals – but anecdotally, it seems the crowds didn’t take to her much and she was nowhere to be seen at Coast.
Though this two-musician dynamic, especially with a drummer who keeps things very basic complementing a virtuosic drummer, is the most obvious point of reference, it is not only for that reason that I say the band I was most reminded of was The White Stripes. There are many other similarities – a heavy influence from the blues, a very crunchy guitar sound, poppy hooks with a hard rock sound, and most of all this air of striving for authenticity. Both Miyavi and Jack White are trying very hard to convince their audience that they are very authentic musicians, that they suffer for their art and wring guitar squeals deep from their souls, but have to struggle against the elements of their songwriting that come over as artificial – the times they need backing tracks because one guitar doesn’t make a big enough sound, the times they’re getting the desired effect (like Miyavi’s extensive use of a pedal that made his guitar sound like a theramin) through very clinical digital manipulation and their often trite lyrics. Yet both have flashes of real brilliance where they are absolutely convincing, and Miyavi has the considerable advantage of being naturally likeable. And I think that’s why I enjoyed this gig more than either time I saw The White Stripes, even with something of a feeling of having seen it all before.
Amusingly, the crowd tried very, very hard in the first two songs – there was a lot of pogoing, fist-pumping and the sort of crush in the middle I associate with festivals. A couple of poor girls were even helped out having collapsed. And then on the third song, as if a switch had been flipped, it all stopped. Everyone relaxed, decided they had their place and stopped shoving. Jumping up and down was strictly in place and perfectly comfortable. Apart from one fan-favourite song that involved lots more pogoing, the gig was then very calm. It was almost cute, but slightly strange. Still, I got an excellent spot with an excellent view despite by terrible ticket number, and as I was in front of a guy my height, I didn’t feel bad about blocking the view of the numerous tiny Japanese girls in the crowd, most of whom must have been able to see little more than somebody’s shouldblades for the entire gig.
Miyavi is obviously an experienced and clever musician. His setlist flowed extremely well. He began with raucous numbers to get the crowd pumped up, sustained that for a while as he showed off his guitar skills, and then switched to an acoustic for some slow, heartfelt numbers – through which Bobo sat perfectly still, watching politely. This was probably the highlight for me, and if I implied earlier that guitar loops take away authenticity, here they were fluid and delicate and gave a coffee-shop mood to a huge stadium gig. Neither voice nor guitar were perfect, but that added to the feeling of seeing a piece of genuine and heartfelt expression. Japanese live music can often be too clean, precise and clinical, and Miyavi was in danger of that at times, but here he pitched it exactly right. Miyavi has obviously opened his mind to blues musicians and recent, tortured vocalists – yes, especially Jack White – and taken that on board without being derivative.
This segued neatly into his most obvious gimmick, using a guitar like a bass for fast-paced slapped riffs. He’d been doing it during the opening songs but did far more Dick Dale-style alternate picking, and on the acoustic it really stood out. Soon he switched over to his electric again, and most of the last part of the set was fun, singalong anthems.
Oh, and at some point he stripped down to a wife-beater to reveal his muscular arms and tattoos, which obviously had great appeal with a considerable part of the audience and is an undeniable element in his success – but then, that’s nothing to be ashamed of in the world of music.
After his first encore song, Miyavi stopped to talk with the audience – either padding in a short set or the real philosophical crux of his tour, depending how cynical you feel. He had a bizarre message around his album and tour title – ‘We Are the Others’, which was very much like being part of the Life of Brian
sketch – Brian: You are all individuals! Crowd (in unison): Yes! We are all individuals!
He started out by singling out people who had come from around the world. ‘Put your hands up if you came from over another country. Where are you from?’ ‘Hong Kong!’ ‘How about you?’ ‘America!’ From this, he tried to make a point about exclusion and being othered by talking about being picked on as a half-Korean boy in a Japanese school. This is in the past, now, though, he claimed. Now we are in an international society and nobody needs to be ostracised or left out. He has ‘made it’ in the USA, so the world is a global place now. So Japanese people, please don’t feel I’m abandoning you for something better and keep buying my records and coming to my gigs, okay?
Yet at the same time he wanted to celebrate individuals and people who stand out – the ‘Others’. But we are all the others, he said. Everyone is special! There was of course not a shred of irony here, or acknowledgement of the contradiction. When everyone is special, the term ‘special’ loses its meaning. In a way, it was horribly patronising. ‘Large mass of people, I stand up here above you, knowing you all worship me, to tell you that you are special like me!’ It was very much having a cake and eating it. But after all, it was a rock gig, and the audience is going to lap up anything that sounds vaguely positive, including if it’s delivered in another language. I liked him more when he was picking on poor Bobo, and blaming him for not touring more around the world.
But oh well, rock stars are allowed to have a bit of bullshit in the encore of their solo gig. And the final song and singalong reprise of his anthemic ‘We Are the Others’ song left the crowd in no doubt that this was just a fun, straightforward bit of rock ’n’ roll.