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The Mike Toole Show
Live at Budo-Con

by Michael Toole,

Last time I rapped at you, readers, it was from a hotel room in Pittsburgh. This time it's from Baltimore, where I just spent several minutes circling the Baltimore Convention Center, marveling at the sight of a completely empty building-- one that I'm more accustomed to seeing during Otakon, completely blown out by more than 30,000 anime dorks. What becomes of anime conventions? Even the smaller ones get so big and loud and crazy and fun so fast, and then before you know it, it's Monday again.

I'm here in the Charm City to count down the hours until JAM Project, those bright and shining stars of the anison (anime song) genre, hit the stage to headline the inaugural Otakon Music Festival, along with their Lantis compatriots Faylan and Natsuko Aso. I saw JAM Project at Otakon 2008, where they put on a great show in spite of the conspicuous absence of a backing band. For one thing, there was five of them (although only four are in Baltimore now-- the delightfully shouty Yoshiki Fukuyama, who's perhaps best known for doing the singing voice for Basara Nekki in Macross 7, is recovering from a cerebral hemorrhage and can't fly), so the stage never felt empty. For another thing, every member is a well-practiced and savvy musician, so they took a welcome break from using a backing tape and went acoustic during part of their set. Finally-- and this is key-- they were performing in a music hall, and the production manager found ways to keep things interesting with lighting tricks and other little special effects. Tonight, with the added attraction of a full live band, things can only get better.

Conventions didn't always have musical acts, you know. It's hard to imagine a midsized or large anime bash without at least one or two performers-- and the smaller cons, if they can't land sufficiently notorious Japanese talent, are more than happy to book nerd rock convention circuit regulars like MC Frontalot or Harry and the Potters to entertain their attendees. But in those increasingly hoary old days before 2000, a singer or band was a rare treat. I saw vocalist MIO, who now trades under the name MIQ, peform at AnimEast 1995, and at the time I found the experience odd - a single performer, on a makeshift stage in a hotel ballroom, singing and dancing in a glittery costume to cassette tape backing tracks, with minimal stage dressing and lighting effects. Her fabulous voice made the experience memorable for the right reasons, though.

But as conventions grew in size and scope, demands for musiical performers got more and more vocal. Otakon scored the British band BoA in 2000, hot off the success of their single “Duvet,” the opener for Serial Experimentsl Lain. Getting BoA made sense - the fact that they were based in the UK made them much more accessible, and they had major backing from Polystar and Pioneer. Their concert was still in a huge, echoey convention center hall - but with a full load-in and a savvy stage crew, it was a lot of fun. But even at that point, music at anime cons was largely confined to karaoke. Macross vocalist Mari Ijima (whohas a new record, just so ya know) had toured the likes of Anime Expo and Anime Weekend Atlanta in 1999, and para-para vocalist Yoko Ishida featured at AX2002 and Anime Central 2003. Puffy AmiYumi toured in support of a greatest hits record in ‘02 (I saw ‘em at a local club, they were tons of fun!), but only appeared at AX to sign autographs, a feat they repeated at the New York Anime Fest in 2010. I think the real game-changer for musical guests at anime cons was Otakon 2004.

2004 was the year that Otakon landed j-rock band L'arc en Ciel as special guests. On its face, it was a pretty big deal - L'arc were and are huge in their their native land - and their songs graced popular anime like GTO and the then-red-hot Fullmetal Alchemist. But on the day of the concert, a huge mob descended on the First Mariner Arena, encircling the building for hours before filing in and filling every last one of its 12,000 seats. The show looked and sounded great, with lead singer HYDE testing his dubious English skills on the audience and guitarist Ken engaging in some guitar-smashing theatrics late in the set. Perhaps most importantly, this energetic performance in front of a huge, screaming crowd was recorded and packaged as a flashy “LIVE in the USA!!” concert video. The DVD made the rounds in Japan, demonstrating to both musicians and fans that, odd as it is, anime conventions could be a real avenue to exposure and success in America. We live in an age where artists from anywhere in the world can score viral hits, but for decades, the American market was practically impossible for Japanese bands to crack - was this a way in?

2004 was a pretty big year for the whole bands-at-the-con phenomenon in general, though. Earlier in the year, my old buddies at Anime Central thought they'd scored a big headliner when they booked visual kei performer MIYAVI. But MIYAVI cancelled, as bands sometimes must, and his replacement act was SID, a similar glam band so young and new that they didn't even have an album to sell, only a demo disc, their first commercial single, and souvenirs like photos and t-shirts. But they carried themselves like rock stars (including, much to the consternation of everyone on live events staff, an afternoon soundcheck that seemed to go on forever), and mobs of gawking would-be fans sprang up wherever they went. They responded well to the attention, actually - when some fans were shut out of their show thanks to a full house, they lobbied for (and received) an acoustic overflow set on Sunday. Needless to say, that set sounded way better. Nowadays, SID are regulars on Japan's Oricon charts, and are releasing a 10th-anniversary Best Of collection in January.

As an aside, the whole visual kei thing used to be a pretty big deal, and so bears a quick mention. “Visual kei” just means “visual style,” and is a genre moniker used to describe Japanese bands (usually rock/metal acts) who employ extremely stylized, glammed-up costumes, sets, and yep, music. To me, the original standard-bearers of the genre, painted-up dudes like Malice Mizer and Due le Quartz, looked like alien rodeo clowns or fancy Juggalos. They pushed glam rock to some pretty interesting places, but they mostly just looked weird, and their music swung towards complicated Yngwie Malmsteen-esque neo-classical metal noodlery. But then along came Psycho le Cemu, a band who, in my opinion, represent the absolute apex of the visual kei genre. Their performances are weird and fun - a hilarious, persistently watchable mixture of theatrical hard rock and boy-band dance routines, kind of a kinder, gentler GWAR - but what pushes them over the top are the costumes, which include nutty cross-dressing adventures and legit space wizard stuff. Justin Sevakis's piece on the band's adventures at American conventions says a lot. These days, Psycho le Cemu aren't as dead and buried as his writing suggests, but they have lost all of the precious momentum they had in the mid-00s, and no stateside appearances are in the cards. Conventions in the middle the last decade were stuffed with visual kei programming, but the genre's died down a bit since then.

I've talked about some of the acts I've seen and the steady upward trajectory of musical acts at cons, but as fascinating as the subject is, there are a couple of things that stick in my craw about the phenomenon. The first one-- and this is a toughie-- is that bands are, more often than not, an enormous drain on a convention's resources. Otakon couldn't have made L'arc happen without help from their label and management, for example. When a band is booked, a convention isn't just inviting the band, but also all their gear, their manager, some dude from the record label, a small road crew, and perhaps a girlfriend or drinking buddy or two. So that's ten or more plane tickets from Japan, and these are people who are gonna be way happier at the show if you spring for Business Class-- not a small expense by any means. That's one reason why your local DoofusCon is settling for a regional J-pop cover band instead of flying in Aya Hirano!

The larger reason that even my favorite Japanese acts appearing at a convention makes me pause for a second is the fact that, with some exceptions, like Otakon's excellent proximity to First Mariner Arena, you're still really likely to see a jetlagged, under-equipped band or an idol singer performing to a CD in a dolled up hotel ballroom. I work in professional AV services myself, and can tell you that most places where conventions take up residence are geared towards business seminars and weddings. Sure, acoustics are probably part of the plan, but they're usually pretty far down the list. In 2005, I passed up seeing The Pillows at ACen, because I'd heard them rehearsing through the poorly-soundproofed walls and it just didn't sound that good. I caught them briefly at Anime Boston 2008, in a large room better-suited to musical performances. Keep in mind that I'm not knocking the band or the sound engineers in these cases-- getting a musical act done takes literal tons of sound, lighting, video gear, and manpower to pound a hotel function room or convention space into something approximating the look and feel of a music hall. It's ridiculously hard work, and results just aren't always ideal.

The last complaint about these performances I hear sometimes is that anime cons aren't about music, man, and the bands and singers are just stealing time and resources from more suitable programming like focus panels and screenings. I'm not so sure I buy this anymore-- most groups at cons are at least tangentally relevant to anime, or barring that, Japanese video games. And hell, sometimes you get a wonderful surprise like the Yoshida Brothers, a shamisen-slinging duo who appeared at Otakon despite having no real link to anime. I used to kvetch that kids begging conventions for musical acts should just do what I did at their age and head down the street to the all-ages punk rock shows, but those shows aren't as common as they used to be. Nowadays, cons are big, broad, all-in-one experiences, and for thousands of young fans, a fairly small-time, hopeful and enthusiastic group from Japan is their very first rock concert. It doesn't matter if the sound is lousy, or the band is on a rickety riser in front of ugly purple drape-- everyone's first rock concert is special. Even if they're seeing Kool and the Gang.

I still see some wonderful surprises out there, too. Anime North was run through with a variety of musical acts this year. One that I caught completely by accident was ADAPTER, a solo electronic musician who had the uphill task of performing at street level, on the convention's outdoor concourse next to the dealer's hall. What I beheld was a guy with crazy hair in some sort of sparkly electro-kimono expertly marshaling a crowd of perhaps 100 behind his Brave 10 theme song “En Okoto”. By the time I swung back around several minutes later, his audience had more than doubled, and people were hurrying over to check out this dude, face to face with fans, belting out vocoder-assisted techno-rock. He also had a set inside the venue, on a proper stage, but this was so much more interesting! Later I'd hit Otakon and swing by the Aya Hirano, concert expecting the vaguely disappointing spectacle of an idol singer in a ridiculous costume belting out her hits to a tape, but was pleased to see that she had a real, locally-sourced backing band. It made a good experience into a great one!

If nothing else, the rising profile of musical acts at anime conventions have given us this golden moment, a true viral masterpiece. Anyone know if GIRUGAMESH (can't say this out loud without giggling) are any good? How about you, gang? Do you watch convention listings obsessively, hoping that your favorite Japanese band will finally use one as a platform to launch their bid for world domination? Do you show up at the con and check out the acts on a case by case basis? Or do you ignore the music, and wait hopefully for the noise to stop? Have you had a great experience seeing a musician at an anime con, or a really memorably bad one? Who are you just waiting to see come over and make an appearance? Personally, I'm still holding out for an X REUNION TOUR, featuring vocalists Toshi Deyama and Exene Cervenka, Yoshiki Hayashi on piano and keyboards, Billy Zoom and Tomoaki Ishizuka on rhythm guitar, John Doe and Hiroshi Morie on bass and backup vocals, Yasuhiro Sugihara handling other instrumental duties, and the one and only DJ Bonebrake on drums. Hey man, if it's wrong to want to hear “Los Angeles” with the viciously refined pomp and swagger of Japanese glam rock, then I don't wanna be right!

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