Brooklyn, New York – I have a friend who often complains she is tired of live music because it is too frequently “not live enough.” She can’t explain exactly what she means, and neither can I, but I understand it: when you see enough performance, it can feel too practiced and considered — both virtues except they threaten to undercut the immediacy that distinguishes live music in the first place.
How I wish she had seen Japanese psych-folk band (so they are commonly labeled) Ghost at their recent Music Hall of Williamsburg performance. I knew the band, primarily through reputation, as an eclectic outfit formed in 1984 by Masaki Batoh, who has since written, recorded and performed with an ever-fluctuating group of musicians. I had also heard how electric and unique their live shows are (they’re known to occasionally play amongst ruins and deserted subway stations in Japan), and know they rarely leave Japan on tour –- and all that considered, it was surprising to see such a sparse turn-out, especially in Brooklyn.
At 11:15 p.m., Batoh led his current seven-piece band on stage, and almost immediately did I wish my friend could have been here for this. Without a word to the audience, they followed Batoh’s lead into the slow build of their 23-minute opener (or was it two songs that morphed into one another? Does it matter?), utilizing an impressive, nigh ridiculous, assembly of instrumentation including horns and flutes, Japanese wind instruments, some sort of electric viola, Theremin, bass drum, keyboards, two apparatuses which Batoh manipulated with his hand, and on and on. A mixture of traditional Japanese folk sound merged with Sun Ra-worthy distortion and drone, stacatto picking intertwined with warbling feedback, none of the myriad melodies too loud or dominant… Then Batoh initiated some poly-rhythmic clapping patterns, the horn player turned and beat a big-ass gong, the drummer came down hard on his full set, and 15 minutes in, this has just become a rock show. Throughout the entire wordless number, the band was oblivious to its audience, focused instead toward the center of the stage as though in ritual, committed to some ceremonial invocation that I couldn’t identify but couldn’t avoid.
This was about as live as it gets — the experience building before us and yet so tightly arranged. But I waste too many words on the first 23 minutes of a nearly two-hour set. After the first song, Batoh strapped on his electric guitar and the style shifted (for the first time). Though he spent the rest of the night on electric or acoustic guitar, singing lulling melodies, the later songs felt barely more traditional than the first piece. Batoh is quite clearly a music hound, for his own compositions boast a ridiculous set of influences — so many that they’re ultimately derivative of nothing. Any song might open with a ’60s Stones bluesy intro, morph into Kinkesque power-pop in its verse and then veer into an interlude that would fit fine into a Suzuki-era CAN album. They call Ghost psychedelic, and that’s apt enough, considering that so many of Batoh’s touchstones evoke that genre, but it’s also limiting. Throughout the night, I thought of Faust, Traffic, ’50s-style dream-pop, Led Zeppelin, Syd Barrett, Genesis, King Crimson, etc. etc. etc., and each of those only for a moment before some other element undercut it. At some point, seeking these touchstones became a fool’s errand because, as the band’s name implies, all of it is ephemeral. By the time you’ve got it pinned down, Batoh is way past you.
I don’t use the word lightly, but there are marks of genius in this guy’s musical vision…and yet, perhaps due to his understated performance style and broken English, none of it felt like clever or considered pastiche. Lesser bands could make careers by playing to the stylistic synthesis inherent in just one of Batoh’s songs. He just lets them go where they go, giving the impression that it’s not his unusually gifted band in control but the music itself. Nevertheless, the club was maybe half full and, by the encore, practically empty. Vampire Weekend might sell out a slew of consecutive dates when they come your way, but if, like my friend, you’re looking for something grander –something more alive than the typical bill — maybe you ought to turn your eyes toward Ghost.