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Live report: Surrender to the psychedelia of the sound created by SHAG

SHAG 20 May 2021 | Photo by Keiko Tanabe

SHAG 20 May 2021 | Photo by Keiko Tanabe

The psychedelic jam band SHAG, in which SUGIZO improvises with five great men, held their first livestream LIVE STREAMING FROM TOKYO EPISODE III – THE SHAG STRIKES BACK – on Thursday, 20 May. SUGIZO founded SHAG back in the early 2000s, initially performing mainly at clubs and rave scene, before reforming with a new lineup in December 2020. The new SHAG is more focused on dope and extremely energetic jazz-rock interplay. The show went on non-stop for about an hour without stage banter before the encore. Despite the fact that there was no audience due to the COVID-19, the heat generated by the thrilling and aggressive performance was palpable even through the screen.

Fifteen minutes past the scheduled time, when the screen switched to the venue image, and there were the members positioning in a circle shape. Right next to SUGIZO was Kazuhiro Bessho on keyboard, a former member of Yasei Collective who stood out in his pyjamas, next to him is trumpet player Shinpei Ruike, who joined SUGIZO LIVE STREAMING FROM TOKYO EPISODE II ~VOICE OF LEMURIA~ in April, opposite to SUGIZO is the super-skilled young talent, drummer Yukino Matsuura, bass player KenKen, one of the best bass heroes and a member of SHAG since its early era, and percussionist Kenji Yoshiura, who is well familiar at SUGIZO solo shows – this was a line-up in which SUGIZO put his complete trust. Hitting the drums hard by Matsuura, and the members started to improvise in a free jazz style. SUGIZO’s guitar made feedback noises and slid his finger across a sword-shaped ribbon controller to operate a modular synthesizer. With a flaming gesture of his hands, he signalled the members to ignite their excitement. From the very beginning, it was like a door to another world had been opened. SUGIZO’s first solo songs SPERMA and THE CAGE amplified the madness of the original songs, and the powerful session drew the audience into the world immediately.

Kazuhiro Bessho and SUGIZO @ SHAG 20 May 2021 | Photo by Keiko Tanabe

Switched to a blue light fantasy space by the third song on the setlist FATIMA, Bessho’s Rhodes and SUGIZO’s violin made a languid melody at the beginning. Having a complex interplay session, it made a whiff of funk and soul, and the song led to take on unexpected expression. At the end of the song, SUGIZO switched to the guitar and played a solo like singing his heart out. KenKen then played a breathtaking bass solo and the song ended with a mystical piano and clear-toned guitar. The electronic music in Raummusik is born from a minimalistic contemporary musical approach that was then followed. In the original song, a restrained glitchy beat created an uplifting atmosphere. However, on the night’s performance, Bessho’s dynamic piano phrases, Ruike’s nostalgic trumpet sound, the percussion battle between Yoshiura and Matsuura, and KenKen’s bass line added completely different colours. Then SUGIZO responded with emotional ad-libs to them, and the song was transformed as if it’s totally reborn.

A cover of Thelonious Monk’s eternal jazz anthem Round Midnight opened the show with a moody and melancholy performance by Ruike, Bessho and Sugizo, accompanied by a video showing the phases of the moon, before going to Initiation of Rebellion. KenKen and Matsuura led an overwhelmed dope dub world. At this point, they had already lost all sense of time and awareness of the breaks between songs, and were just intoxicated by the sounds that they were playing, but with D Jam, this trippy vibe was further deepened. With only SUGIZO’s hand gestures and cue phrases shared beforehand, the members could endlessly create a lively series of sounds inspired by their own feelings and the sounds of their partners at that moment.

SHAG 20 May 2021 | Photo by Keiko Tanabe

The final song of the main part was a cover of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, which was a major inspiration for the relaunch of SHAG. The same-titled album, which contains Bitches Brew, is a milestone in the fusion of jazz and rock, and symbolizes SUGIZO’s belief that it is time to recapture the attitude of almost 50 years ago, when music was closely linked to a rebellious spirit against society. The band members looked at each other many times, sensing each other’s breathing and getting the timing right, playing the notes at the same time and sometimes not at all, creating a thrilling improvisation. The unpredictability and preciousness of the form of the ensemble, which could only be created at the moment, was palpable even through the screen.

After leaving the stage for a while, SUGIZO reappeared and said, “I’d like to play this song for my master, Mr. Toshinori Kondo. I’d like to dedicate this song for him”, then performed PRAY FOR MOTHER EARTH as an encore. This is a profound and magnificent ballad that he has created together with him. His requiem for his great master, who he learned the essence of improvisation from, had a sad and dense groove, and the synergy between the video and the lighting was wonderful as if the soul was enveloped in light and saw a journey back into the universe. In an atmosphere of both excitement and tranquillity, SHAG’s first live-streaming show ended.

As a member of LUNA SEA, which celebrated its 30th anniversary, as a member of X JAPAN, and as a solo artist, SUGIZO restarted this project SHAG in the 2020s during his extremely busy days. This jam band that mixes rock, jazz, funk, soul, new wave, and all other genres indiscriminately to create more free improvisational expressions is exceptionally unique. The VJ for the day was Shinya Takaoka, who has been involved with early SHAG for a long time, and the mixing was done by Dub Master X, a master of the Japanese dub scene whom SUGIZO and his friends trust completely.

This jam band is becoming a stimulating group of avant-garde creators, crossing the boundaries of improvisational music projects. Not only is it pleasant to surrender to the psychedelia of sound, but also, as mentioned above, SUGIZO has the sincere issues he raises with society behind SHAG’s relaunch. At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has further divided and discrimination is widespread, SUGIZO’s message that music is an essential part of the search for true freedom and human rights should be listened to carefully, and pay close attention to the next movement of SHAG, which will further accelerate its activities in the future.

SHAG 20 May 2021 | Photo by Keiko Tanabe

It is good to know that it is still possible to watch the archive of this livestream until the end of the 27th of May (Japanese time). More information can be found here.

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