Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic that has hamstrung the entire live music and travel industries, it’s been a rough year for music fans and performers alike. Second only to time spent with family and friends, the experience of a good live show is the one thing that I miss most of all.
The much-publicised disbandment of Kalafina back in 2019 led to one, two and now three separate solo careers for its three main singers, who have all forged their own distinctive paths. Keiko Kubota seemed to be taking a much longer hiatus, but joined her old songwriter Yuki Kajiura on stage again shortly before wider events of 2020 took over. Things are starting to ease up a bit though, and Keiko’s first steps as a solo artist now include her first solo live show.
One obvious problem with a pandemic-friendly concert is that attendance is severely limited, but it was decided that the venue could hold a few dozen fan club members, which helped create an atmosphere close to that of a full crowd. For the rest of us a live stream was the next best thing, which captures the general flavour of what was going on “in the room” but can never fully recreate the atmosphere or the physical impact of live instruments. The video editing was a little rough and the balance of the sound levels didn’t seem quite right at certain points either, but these are also compromises that come with livestreaming; if this were recorded for a home video release, I expect that they would be corrected easily enough during editing.
Minor grumbles with the sound levels aside, the band themselves sounded professional enough, although it’s clear that they’re still getting used to performing together. This isn’t really their fault at all, and will I’m sure solve itself over time: the “front band” line-up that Keiko performed with previously have toured and recorded together regularly for over a decade, and that on-stage chemistry is impossible to replicate straight away. The important thing here is that she and her new bandmates were clearly glad to be performing live on stage again, and this sense of fun was infectious.
The general theme of a “homecoming” concert was carried through from the choice of venue at Shibuya Quattro to the set list. Most of the songs performed were either taken from her first two solo singles or planned for her debut album, but several others were selected for more sentimental reasons. These were Houseki and Kaze no Machi he, two tracks recorded during her early days with FictionJunction; and a heartfelt cover of I Love You, a popular rock ballad written by the late Yutaka Ozaki, another Tokyo singer-songwriter whose music had apparently greatly influenced Keiko when she was young.
The up-tempo rock tune Be Yourself was a suitable opener to break the ice, and was immediately followed by Hajimari wa and Ray, which were from her singles that were released earlier this year. Tameiki no Kieru Machi is the first new track to be showcased, but the first surprise highlight of the set for me was Akane, which sounded stunning but different from contemporary chart pop. I’m not sure who the songwriter was, but it has a wonderfully atmospheric, mysterious and almost timeless quality that feels fresh while being eerily similar to what she used to sing during her FictionJunction and Kalafina days.
Perhaps its placement was deliberate, because it segued nicely into the three cover songs that formed the more “nostalgic” segment of the show. A return to “original” material came with End Roll, whose four-on-the-floor kick drum beat made it perfect for injecting some energy after a series of slower and more introspective songs. I think that this will be a regular feature at future live shows, because it really does have a lot of punchy attitude where Keiko had the opportunity to whip out a mic stand and really rock out. The backing vocal samples suggest that a “studio” edit has already been recorded, but this was one moment when I think that she would have benefited from the presence of a backing singer or two. Other than that, the only moments of shyness came in the MC sections where she seemed uneasy when she wasn’t engaging in a bit of banter with her bandmates. I suspect that this was due to the reduced crowd and also the fact that it was her first solo live show, so I’m sure that it will get easier for her.
Change the World’s Colour is another new track which, again, makes me really hyped for her upcoming album (which, according to her announcement during one of the MCs, is pencilled in for the beginning of December), and Inochi no Hana came across even better than it did in the studio version.
Nanairo no Finale was an appropriate way to end the live stream, with one foot in the past and one in the future. It was another up-tempo tune with lyrics written by Keiko herself, but Yuki Kajiura had composed the music to accompany them. This made it feel like a FictionJunction track in all but name, but any listener familiar with their previous projects will notice its significance: in the past, Keiko was for all intents and purposes an employee who performed Yuki’s songs, while this feels more collaborative. It sort-of marks her growth as an artist – rather than just a singer – and makes me very intrigued about where she takes things from here.
I’ve been told that another couple of FJ tracks, Nohara and Synchronicity, were exclusive to the audience in attendance at the venue, but I’m personally not sure about how disappointed I feel about missing out on them. Synchronicity in particular is blistering…or at least the version that I’m familiar with is. The FJ guitarist Koichi Korenaga had a lot of input in the arrangement (according to the Everlasting Songs CD booklet, at any rate), so to me that’s the “definitive” version and I’m not sure whether my personal bias will allow me to enjoy that song as much without him playing it on stage with her.
Overall though it was an impressive return to live performance, and I’m glad that Keiko and her supporting staff were able to get everything to run smoothly and broadcast it to a wider audience. The stream is archived until around 13th of September, and there’s an extremely helpful tutorial written out by a fellow fan that helps you navigate the ticket purchasing procedure to access it. The music industry in general is facing a lot of difficulties right now, and quite honestly they need all the fan support that they can get while we all wait for relative normality to return.