You know when you go to a gig, and it just exceeds all expectations? Well, my night with Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra did just that and landed in my all-time top three.
What I thought would be a typical concert at which Ska Para (as they’re called by fans) would appear with a support band in fact turned out to be 2 ½ hours of just them, a style of show that the Japanese refer to as a solo wanman raibu (one-man live).
The band is midway through a year of celebrations marking 30 years since the release of its self-titled debut EP, and has been on tour across the nation collaborating with a range of other acts.
The June 12 set at Zepp DiverCity Tokyo kicked off with “Are You Ready to Ska?” and “5 Days of Tequila,” before jumping into the first of several upbeat singalong fan favorites with “Down Beat Stomp.” “Ska Me Crazy” and “A Quick Drunkard” continued that vein later in the set, getting people singing and skanking to the music. Elsewhere in the show, “Stroke of Fate,” from the 2005 album “Answer,” was a highlight, while closer “White Light” was simply a superb show of giddy musicianship, complete with a pirouetting trombonist and plenty of mugging to the crowd.
But while the original songs sounded great, the covers were positively anthemic. As the opening to “Love Theme from ‘The Godfather'” rang out, the air was thick with anticipation, and the tune certainly delivered — light and dark, moody but melodic. The themes from “Lupin III” and “Sesame Street” were almost as good, but then, right at the end of the main set, there was an updated version of “Peddlers,” the band’s 1989 take on a Russian folk song better known as the background music to the video game “Tetris.”
The set mixed the old and new, from the first EP right through to the latest album, truly showcasing the group’s three decades of material.
What is unusual about Ska Para is that you have nine musicians, several of whom are multi-instrumentalists, who are all capable vocalists. Lead vocal duties changed from song to song, with percussionist Hajime Omori regularly leaving his set up at the back of the stage for a spell at the front with a microphone in his hand.
The band chatted throughout, throwing comments and jokes to the crowd, which lapped up the banter. But among the fun and japes and the ska horns, there were a couple of moving moments. At one point, keyboard player Yuichi Oki grabbed an accordion and came to the front of the stage to play a beautiful solo piece, “Kimi to Boku,” with just the accordion and his own whistling. The audience was understandably rapt, and the applause was almost deafening.
Later, three-piece band Fujifabric was welcomed on stage, joining Ska Para for a couple of tunes. One was poignantly decicated to band members who have passed away, with both bands having lost members during their years.
And then it was back to being upbeat. Masahiko Kitahara, the oldest member of the band at 57, got noises out of his trombone that just shouldn’t be possible as he strutted around with the instrument slung over his shoulder like a bazooka. Meanwhile, looking like a well-dressed Hiroshi Abe, Atsushi Yanaka agitated the crowd in between blasts on his massive, farty baritone sax.
But while all these musicians looked as fresh as daisies and were full of smiles throughout, if you squinted at the back of the stage you found the real pure joy of this band in the form of drummer Kinichi Motegi. Smashing the hell out of his cymbals for all he was worth, this is a man who clearly loves what he does. He chatted between songs, took lead vocals on a couple of numbers, and just powered through the entire set with the grin of a child on Christmas morning plastered on his face. It was a joy to see.
And then, after a two-hour nonstop set, followed by a half-hour encore, it was all over bar the T-shirt sales. And those were almost as eye-catching as the besuited band that had just entranced us.
The truth of the matter is that most of this band are in their mid-50s, so you wonder how long they’ll stick at it. But despite some of them looking a bit like your manager at work, all of those men have energy and passion to spare, and not one of them looks like they’ll be giving up any time soon. Here’s to the next 30 years, fellas.
Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra’s 30th Anniversary Hall Tour will take place from November 21 to March 1. For more information, visit www.tokyoska.net.