For the first tour since the 2020 pandemic lockdown, Japanese Breakfast performed as though that downtime spent not being able to operate as usual as a band incubating the new material and developing a live show that felt somehow both spontaneous and refined. As someone who hadn’t seen the band since 2016 at Larimer Lounge the tasteful yet robust light show simply enhanced the impact of the band’s already evocative songwriting.
The show started off with opener Luni Li. The Toronto, Ontario-based songwriter brought her eclectic style of pop that sounded as rooted in 90s R&B and smooth jazz as 2000s indie rock. But just when you thought you had her sound figured out the singer/guitarist would lay out some superb display of guitar or violin prowess showing that sure she could write pleasant, tuneful songs imbued with her charming stage presence but she also had chops that could add that dimension to the music. She recounted to us how she had looked up to Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast because for maybe the first time in her life she saw someone who also had Korean ancestry represented in the realm of music she might aspire to join. Li had written some demos of instrumentals in the early part of 2021 that she shared a bit of with us with the full band that brought to full bloom other songs like the ethereally gorgeous “Afterglow.”
As a six-piece for this show, Japanese Breakfast utilized the large stage of The Ogden well with back lighting as circles or spheres upon which colors and patterns were projected along with streaming and sweeping lights from above to create a palpable ambiance and an intimate mood befitting the vulnerable energy of the music. Sure, the first two Japanese Breakfast albums were written in the wake of deeply painful experiences and processing the intense emotions related to them in a way that didn’t leave one in a state of dissociation. Much of the set list was drawn from the 2021 album Jubilee, as one might hope, and the older songs took on a similar emotional timbre. That is to say, and perhaps projecting a bit here, a tentative embrace of those things in life that brighten your lived experience after a long period of feeling under a cloud of a necessary and natural time of having your head and heart in a space where your joy and other positive emotions can feel alternately muted and amplified, your negative emotions similarly outsized. The songs of Jubilee felt like an attempt to find a healthy balance without going toxically posi and pretending everything’s cool just because you want it to be especially after a year and a half of some of the most confusing times in the country’s history both in terms of the impact of the pandemic and the seemingly endless string of crises brought on by political and cultural turmoil that are impossible to ignore. Like most of us, Zauner and the band intuited that living in that existential zone is unsustainable even when caution is still necessary and there is so much work left to do. And one way to break that emotional and spiritual stasis is to make creative work looking to an inevitable and hopefully better future rather than stay focused on the worst possibilities.
Beginning with one of Jubilee’s introductory song, and one of Japanese Breakfast’s most immediately catchy and appealing, “Paprika,” brought us along on a journey of deep emotional honesty that is the hallmark of Zauner’s songwriting. From the emotionally complex “Be Sweet” to the poignant “Kokomo, IN” in the first third of the set we experienced a gentle and vibrant side to the newer material. The cover of Dolly Parton’s classic “Here You Come Again” seemed a perfect fit for the way Zauner sings about love and relationships as never simple and never the cliché of love solving all your problems and that the falling in love is pretty much never happiness ever after and that it often simply doesn’t work out and not often too catastrophically but in the regular, everyday way that our failings and our adherence to outmoded personal narratives can create conflict and disappointing experiences without our intending them to be. Certainly following up the Parton song with “Boyish” and “The Body is a Blade” solidified Zauner’s gift for articulating these multi-layered human experiences and emotions with a poetic economy.
In the final third of the set proper, Japanese Breakfast treated us to a bit of Zauner’s soundtrack to the video game Sable and the track “Glider” and ending with a a rousing yet somehow wry rendition of the great Psychopomp track “Everybody Wants To Love You.” But it was an early night and though having already played fifteen songs, Zauner and her bandmates returned for an encore closing the night with one of the band’s greatest songs, the psychedelic, space rock, cool jazz celebratory anthem “Diving Woman.” That song from Soft Sounds from Another Planet struck one before and seemed this night a peek into the next chapter for people who have been through a long period of feeling like everything has been oppressive and tentative and maybe forward motion, however cautious we must be, is possible.