Last night I was lucky enough to be one of the small number of people crammed into one of Dublin’s smallest venues, Crawdaddy, to witness the first night of the Damo Suzuki and Makoto Kawabata tour. For those of you who aren’t up on their obscure psychedelic rock music, Damo Suzuki was the vocalist with legendary Krautrock band, Can, on what many consider their best albums (recorded between 1970 and 1973). And if you’re phased by the idea of a Japanese vocalist singing improvised lyrics in English with a German band, then the actual music will probably be a wee bit much for you. In my own strange little world, Damo Suzuki is one of the few singers who qualifies as a genuine living legend.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so. My companion at the gig, the lovely Citizen S, was awestruck by Damo. I know I’m with a kindred spirit when they exclaim, “I can’t believe I was close enough to reach out and touch Damo! He was with Can on all their really important records, you know?”
Indeed I do know. And what’s more, he didn’t disappoint. I’ve seen a few others in that select “living legend” category and most of them, sadly, were past their best by the time I got there. I’m glad I saw Dylan, but let’s face it… 90s Dylan isn’t 60s Dylan. Or even 70s Dylan. Tom Waits… well, it was the venue and sound-system that let him down, but overall that evening wasn’t all it could have been. The Velvet Underground? Let’s just say I couldn’t even listen to their records for a couple of years after that shambolic reunion. And “going through the motions” doesn’t even begin to describe Van Morrison when I saw him.
But some of the greats still carry their muse with them long after they’ve created the music that defines their legend. Bowie, Patti Smith, Prince… even Leonard Cohen and Iggy Pop retained enough of their glorious magic to carry you back down the years with them.
And to that list I can now add Damo Suzuki. I didn’t understand a single word he sang. I’m not even sure what language he was singing in, or if it was a language at all. But his presence and his voice transfixed me. The message was clear, even if the words weren’t. “We are all here together. Allow the sound to fill you. Let your mind get blown for a while.” In a way I’m glad I wasn’t under the influence of anything other than the music (though I suspect a wee schmoke beforehand would have intensified things somewhat) as it means I don’t have to spend the next few days wondering just how much of that experience was the music and how much was the pot.
The other name on the ticket was Makoto Kawabata. He’s a guitarist with contemporary Japanese psych-rock outfit, Acid Mothers Temple. I don’t really know their stuff (though I plan to), but if Kawabata’s playing is anything to go by, then they are spiritual heirs to Can (though doubtlessly with their own unique twist). Everything about Kawabata screamed “Rock God!” How he looked, his demeanor, and the intensity of his playing. He managed to redefine “kosmische” (doubtlessly using a Japanese word that I’m unfamilar with) and has shot right up near the top of my list of Guitar Greats. Imagine if Slash from Guns’n'Roses was Japanese. And good looking. And good at playing the guitar.
Together they put on what might have been an intricately rehearsed set, or might have been a jam session. It might have been a bunch of different tracks, or night have been one long piece. It really wasn’t easy to tell what was going on. Except my mind was being blown. And that’s what mattered most. It was hard, psychedelic rock in the most part, but shifted down into darkly ambient weirdness on occasion, and once in a while shifted gears into a kind of jazz-influenced insanity.
Also on stage were some local musicians… bass, drums, loops and clarinet. The drummer — wearing a rather cool Alien Sex Fiend t-shirt — was pretty good I thought. He was no Jaki Liebezeit, and I’m not going to pretend he was. But he didn’t let the side down. The others were… well, they succeeded in not ruining things, let’s put it that way. They allowed Suzuki and Kawabata to do their thing without ever really adding to it. But maybe that was the point.
And frankly, when Damo Suzuki is standing within touching distance, howling ancient magicks into my mind and Makoto Kawabata’s guitar is wailing with unearthly beauty next to him, I’ve got pretty much all I need from a gig right there. Close to the end, Suzuki spoke to the audience to inform us that he’d be playing one more song. “It’s late”, he said, “We will play one more song.” Then he smiled. “We will play one more universe”.
And they did.
The tour continues on to England over the next few days. I’d advise you to get along and see them.