BY MARK JENKINS
Japanese toy-pop visionary Shugo Tokumaru plays nearly all the parts on his elaborately layered recordings, which poses an obvious problem in concert. Several problems, actually. Should Tokumaru perform with pre-recorded backing tracks, risking the sterility of so much contemporary mechano-music? Or should he employ a Brian Wilson-sized backup ensemble that can reproduce every timbre of the studio work? And could he even afford to travel with such a group?
Tokumaru quickly, and splendidly, revealed his strategy at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, where he and a backing quintet played the only East Coast show of a five-date U.S. tour. Passages were elongated or abbreviated, established tempos were slowed or accelerated and instruments highlighted in the recordings were replaced with different ones. “Shirase,” the upbeat epic from Tokumaru’s latest album, In Focus?, became gentler in concert, while the lilting “Parachute” (from 2008’s Exit) turned more boisterous.
The effect was lively and engaging, and true to the spirit of the original versions. The alterations kept the music frisky and surprising, just like the musician’s immaculate yet never prissy albums. Tokumaru spoke about as many English words as he uses in his lyrics, but the pleasure he took in making this music — and from the unexpectedly small but utterly devoted audience — was apparent.
It came late in the hour-long set, when his approach had already been thrillingly demonstrated, but Tokumaru’s cover of “Video Killed the Radio Star” was characteristic. The band leader switched from guitar to ukulele for a stripped-down version that lost none of the Buggles’ arch energy. He interjected the tune’s synth hook on a kazoo, which was funny, charming and altogether apt.
It’s hard to imagine how these songs sounded at Tokumaru’s European shows in May, which featured just two backing players, drummer Yoshinari Kishida and multi-instrumentalist Yumiko Hishinuma (who records her own albums under the name Mesomeso). Both were present for this show, in rather different roles. Kishida never left his drums, although sometimes the kit didn’t seem large enough to contain his enthusiasm. Hishinuma alternated among — a partial list — accordion, trumpet, flute, whistle, melodica, and toy xylophone. Sometimes she sang a tiny but crucial hook, doing so once while making a hand puppet punch its fists in time to the music.
Kei Tanaka played mostly bass, although he sometimes sawed it with a bow, and once switched to ukulele. Itoken handled percussion and keyboards, while Chanson Sigeru employed as many noisemakers as Hishinuma, but without the accordion or wind instruments.
It’s telling that four of the five musicians often played percussion. When performing music as chimey, clangy and clattery as Tokumaru’s, there can never be enough bells, cymbals, gongs and hand claps. But the show’s crucial ingredients were whimsy, spontaneity and joy.