The thing about a Kishi Bashi concert is that you don’t necessarily have to be familiar with the songs to get the show. In fact, there’s something to be said for coming into contact with a Kishi Bashi (the project of singer-songwriter/violinist/composer K Ishibashi) song for the first time. They’re not so much songs in the verse-chorus-verse sense as tiny worlds encapsulated in sound that ranges from bubbly pop to sweeping classical composition.
Fresh from the studio where he’s been recording Lighght (out on May 13), K and his band (which included opener Tall Tall Trees, the project of banjo player Mike Savino — more about him in a minute) hit the Grey Eagle stage new offering “Philosophize It! Chemicalize With It!” That song, brisk and light, soaring on updrafts and falsetto swoops, is in line with previous cuts, such as “Bright Whites,” which got some play on a Microsoft commercial. In fact, that was the second song of the night, setting a buoyant mood for a varied crowd that included belly dancers and dads with kids perched on shoulders.
Kishi Bashi is known for building songs through series of loops, sound samples, beat boxing, layered vocals (including is aerial falsetto) and violin parts. (Watch his NPR Tiny Desk Concert here.) Those songs are a wonder to witness in the making. At times the Jenga tower of sounds threatens to collapse in on itself, but K is skilled at creating order from the chaos and the audience responds to propulsive and cartoon-bright madness-turned-hooky melody.
A note here about Savino of Tall Tall Trees: his addition to Kishi Bashi’s band was odd and yet utterly perfect. Formerly a band leader himself, Savino is now a solo act and, like K, utilizes loops and effects to turn his banjo into a pocket orchestra. Not a fan of the banjo’s twang and old-timey pluck? Give Tall Tall Trees a listen — Savino stretches and bends the instruments capabilities, playing it more like an electric guitar, pairing it with Mr. T samples, and using a drum stick on the banjo head for added percussion.
But many of Kishi Bashi’s new songs veer away from loops, relying more on the band to craft the textured and nuanced sound. “Carry On Phenomenon,” from Lighght, gallops through heavy percussion and waves of violin that cut the thickness of the song. Even without all of the effects, K’s voice is formidable. Dusky in his low register and swooning in the high notes, he sounded especially sweet on the dreamy-romantic “Q&A.”
The band also attempted its first-ever live performance of “One Upon A Lucid Dream (in Afrikaans).” It was not a flawless performance, but there was something exciting about witnessing a Kishi Bashi song pre-polish. The rawness along with the hand claps, and the rhythmic complexity of Afropop-meets-California country rock, was a glimpse into K’s creative process.
A highlight of the night — and it was a show that rode a crest from start to finish — was K’s chill-inducing solo performance of “I Am the Antichrist to You.” That song, from the elegantly plucked strings at its opening to the full-force orchestration of looped violin and lush vocals, always feels like a new discovery. It’s a piece that begs to be played with a full orchestra. Which is not to say that the song as it is lacks substance. Even as a solo performance, it’s symphonic and huge — overwhelming, really. It’s an emotional roller coaster, a catharsis, a vision realized, a universe captured in the sonic equivalent of a snow globe.