Yagami Toll 51st Birthday Live "It's A Now!"
Yagami Toll & the New Blue Sky
August 20th live at Shimokitazawa Club 251
Live Report by Cayce


Silly fangirl, did you really think a birthday live show was only for people turning 50?  Don’t you know the significance of the number 50 is simply an artifact of our base-10 numbering system, and has no meaning on its own, whereas a year is a year is a year, and as life is short, all years deserve celebration?  One thing’s for sure: Yagami Toll knows this.  Plus, he seems to feel that every birthday he reaches past the half-century mark should receive twice as much celebration as the one before it.  Last year on his 50th birthday, he only hosted one show, but this year he held not one but TWO shows, to make up a whole Yagami Toll Birthday Tour™, with stops in both Osaka and Tokyo.  Though just like last year, these birthday shows were entitled “It’s A Now,” I respectfully submit that perhaps in following years they should be renamed, “It’s Always A Now.”

After all, the years may take their toll, but now is always a good time for a party.

It’s true that this year’s birthday Toll Tour did not quite measure up to last year’s level of extravagant pain boozy style.  This year, there were no guest bands, and Buck-Tick themselves didn’t even perform, which may have been a letdown from the purely selfish perspective of desperately wanting to see Buck-Tick onstage with Loopus, Der Zibet and Auto-Mod at any and all shows from now until 2075 (careful Cayce your 80’s goth petticoat is showing).  On the other hand, it also had an advantage, as far as Toll’s concerned—“It’s a Now ver. 51” was basically Toll’s own oneman show, meaning he was free to play whatever songs he wanted to.  He could also be reasonably sure that all the people in the audience would be his own personal fans, not just fangirls hoping in vain to see Sakurai stand up on tiptoe to make out with Selia.

As I imagine this, I think to myself that it would be interesting to see what size venue each Buck-Tick member would be able to sell out all on his own.  In the case of Sakurai, we already know he could sell out NHK Hall, and my guess is that Toll probably couldn’t do that.  Still, judging by the crowds at Club 251, I’m betting he could have sold out a substantially larger venue with no trouble, especially if the show were on a weekend and not a Tuesday night.  As it was, the venue was so packed that staff members were tripping over fans just to get between backstage and the bar.  Also, by some unfortunate turn of circumstance, all the giant bath towels with Toll’s face on them were sold out before the show even started.  Once again, I lament the fact that Buck-Tick’s management never make enough of the best tour goods.  And this, my friends, is why Cayce is still missing a Yagami Toll bath towel.  Between you and me, this makes me very upset.

The nice thing about seeing Toll at a place like Club 251 is that mostly, this venue hosts nothing but indie punk bands.  Shimokitazawa has been synonymous with the underground rock-n-roll lifestyle for at least thirty years, but though Buck-Tick was once a part of this scene, they’re far too popular now to ever play a show at such a small club, which is why seeing Toll at Club 251 feels like the Real Deal.  The not-so-nice thing about Club 251 is that it more or less resembles a low-ceilinged cave.  The stage is low enough and the crowd were collectively tall enough that standing in the back, it was almost impossible to see anything but the top of Toll’s hair while he was sitting on the drum throne.  I assume the crowd was so tall in part because there were so many more male fans than usual…which is not to say Toll is without fangirls!  Though it seems that most overseas fans believe that Acchan is the only member of Buck-Tick, here in Japan, things are a bit more egalitarian, and all the band members have their crazy fangirls, Toll included, and naturally, this being his birthday, all his hardcore fangirls were in vocal attendance.  I would discuss them in more detail, but I don’t want to name names.

Anyhow, tonight’s show featured Toll as the drummer of Yagami Toll and the New Blue Sky, a session band who made their public debut performing at Toll’s birthday live last year.  Last year, they played nothing but cover of songs by Carol, a Japanese classic-rock inspired band that Toll has admired since he was a boy, and I’d therefore surmised that the New Blue Sky were essentially a Carol copyband…so imagine my surprise when, amid cheering and shouting, the band took their places on the stage and struck up the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.”!  For this performance, The New Blue Sky were joined by guest vocalist Shime, who not only has the perfect vocal range and technique for classic rock, but fantastic English pronunciation to boot.  The set continued with more Beatles hits like “Come Together,” “Hard Days’ Night,” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” as well as songs by other favorite bands of Toll’s—“That’s All Right” by Elvis Presley, and “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival may be better known in the West than in Japan, but I thought everyone knew the Beatles—after all, the Beatles were so popular in Japan that when they finally came to Japan for a tour, they had to perform in the Nippon Budoukan, formerly only used as a venue for ultra-Japanese sports like sumo and kendo, because there was no other venue big enough to accommodate the crowds.  Believe it or not, allowing a foreign rock band to play in the Budoukan was a controversial decision at the time, with crusty, nationalistic old-boy blowhards making a lot of noise about “slackening cultural values,” et cetera.  But in the end, the Beatles’ overwhelming popularity prevailed, and ever since then, the playing at the Budoukan has become a rite of passage for bands; proof of surpassing a certain threshold of popularity.  Even now, the Beatles are still just as popular in Japan as in the West, and Beatles memorabilia is everywhere.  Therefore, I really did expect that Toll’s fans would know these Beatles songs, and yet it appeared that many of them didn’t.  Though a few fans were raising their hands in the air and singing along, many more were simply standing there, looking attentive and enthusiastic but slightly thrown off balance.  I suppose it’s not that surprising, considering that plenty of hardcore Buck-Tickers seem to only listen to Buck-Tick at the exclusion of all other music…but all the same, I was reminded of the time I saw Kozi, formerly of Malice Mizer, play a cover of Bauhaus’ “Dark Entries.”  Despite the fact that the performance took place at a goth club, the fangirls seemed to have no idea this song was a classic of goth and gushed that they were “so impressed with the wild originality of Kozi’s new work.”  Readers of this article, if you don’t know your Beatles and your Bauhaus, please, do me a favor, and go listen to Abbey Road and In The Flat Field at your earliest convenience.  It will be more than worth it, I promise.

Anyhow, The New Blue Sky played very straight covers of all the songs in their set, sticking close to the original arrangements, rather than re-interpreting the songs in new ways.  However, the band members are all such good musicians that this wasn’t a problem—it was a pleasure simply to hear them play.  No matter how many jokes they cracked about feeling nervous or not having rehearsed enough, the fact is, they were flawless.  Toll’s always been a firm, solid, minimalist drummer rather than a show-off, and this show was no exception.  It may have seemed odd to some people that the party was for him, yet he seemed to be stuck in his usual role of tireless support man, but this is clearly a role in which he flourishes and takes great pride.  Though it was hard to see his expression from where I was standing, it seemed he was sitting up straighter than usual, all the way to the ends of his hair, which barely moved, no matter how hard he stomped on the kick pedal.

Toll’s not only a notable Beatles fan, he’s also notable for cracking jokes, so it was a bit surprising that he didn’t talk very much during this show.  Instead, he choose to leave the chatter up to his bandmates—but luckily, his bandmates are all funny guys themselves, and wasted no time in introducing Toll as “God.”  At this, Toll tapped the cowbell on his drum set, and the audience roared with laughter.  Students of Japanese should recognize this classic joke—“Kami-sama,” the Japanese word for “God,” can also be taken to mean “Massively Amazing Hair.”

“Kami-sama!” the fans shrieked over and over, and each time they did so, Toll would tap the cowbell (shush that is not a euphemism.)  Soon, the shouts of “kami-sama” had morphed into shouts of “Yagami-sama!” which continued throughout the show.

After a mere half hour or so, the first set concluded with “Get Back,” and the band left the stage—but the show was far from over.  The band members were simply taking a break before their second set.  When they returned to the stage ten minutes later, they had changed into matching tour t-shirts and wore red bandanas around their necks, just as they did last year.  The red bandanas are an homage to Carol, so it was no surprise that the second set consisted entirely of covers of Carol’s greatest hits, including “Nikui Ano Ko,” “Hey Mama Rock’n’Roll,” and most famous of all, “Funky Monkey Baby.”  Guest vocalist Shime did not participate in this second set, which brought the performances of the other instrumentalists to the fore.  Though all the band members are more than competent musicians, the one who stood out the most was guitarist Yagi, who played solo after shimmering solo, in sweet, un-distorted classic rock tones.  And in case you were wondering—yes, Yagi in the New Blue Sky is the selfsame Yagi Tomoharu who, during his day job, makes all Buck-Tick’s stage costumes.  Truly, he’s a man of many talents!  From what we saw of him here, it seems he plays guitar just as well as Imai, albeit in a very different style.  But when we commended him on his performance after the show, he waved it off, claiming to be “nothing but a dilettante and a humble tailor for five adult men who are very sure of what they want.”  Though his self-effacement was charming, I think he has a right to brag.  He can really play.

“We’re sorry this show isn’t longer,” the band members apologized, as the Carol set neared its conclusion.  “Truly, we just don’t have that many songs in our repertoire.”  They laughed sadly, and Toll hit the cowbell again.

“Yagami-sama!” the fans screamed, and the band members left the stage one by one.

But when the lights came back up for the encore, Toll returned to the stage all alone, his eyes hidden behind big visor sunglasses.  A stool had been set up front and center, and he sat on this before addressing his fans.

“So, I did this in Osaka on Saturday, and I’m going to do it again tonight,” he began.  The fans listened with bated breath, eager to hear what “it” was.  “I could only sleep for about four hours the night before that show, I was so nervous,” Toll continued.  “When I think about singing on stage, I can’t sleep at all!  I couldn’t sleep last night, either.  That’s why I’m wearing these sunglasses—so I don’t have to look at you!  But here goes.”

Indeed, far from his usual goofball confidence, he was so nervous he was visibly shaking, but he took it well in hand.  Settling himself on the stool and straightening his sunglasses, Toll pulled the microphone towards him, as the lights went down and the music came up.  Here it was, the moment everyone’s been waiting for since last year: Toll’s chill out lounge cover of “Funky Monkey Baby,” performed live.  Since the background music was still recorded, it was more of a karaoke performance than anything else, but Toll was singing live!  If he’s ever sung in public before, I suspect it was a long time ago and not well publicized.  Friends, this was a great moment in Buck-Tick history.  The giant disco ball in the center of the room twirled slowly overhead, adding to the groovy atmosphere as Toll made his best stab at some sensual crooning.  Though he missed his cue to come in after the instrumental break, all in all, he did a good job.  The sunglasses may have just been a ploy to keep him from looking at the fans and losing his nerve, but they had the side-effect of compounding his coolness factor.

Friends, no one looks cooler than Yagami Toll in sunglasses, sitting on a stool under a disco ball, singing a song.  Nobody.  Trust me, I was there and I saw it with my own eyes.

But as with all great moments, it passed by too quickly.  When the song had ended, the rest of the band members, including Shime, returned to the stage for a final Beatles song, “Help!”

And now the show was almost over, but not quite.  Because…what’s a birthday without cake?  As soon as “Help!” finished, the fans began singing happy birthday, inserting “Anii,” “Toll,” and “Yagami-sama” as they saw fit.  The stage cake was brought out, and Toll blew out the candles.  Though no one in the audience could see it at the time, there was actually a separate cake intended for eating at the party, and the amusing message it had written on it was—“Yagami Toll: You’re Still 50!”  (It’s pictured in the latest issue of the Fish Tank newsletter.)

But best of all, along with the cake, Yutaka came out onstage, arms laden with a giant bouquet, to offer his big brother some birthday love.  Though he was looking sharp in a pressed suit, Yutaka never fails at cuteness, and the girls in the audience screamed and squealed when they saw him.  It’s an interesting phenomenon that while Imai, Hide, and Acchan-chan-chan-chan-chan all have their own dedicated fans, many if not most of Toll and Yutaka’s fans identify themselves as fans of “The Higuchi Brothers,” plural.  Lucky for them, tonight they got the whole Higuchi package, though much as we might have liked him to, Yutaka did not stick around to play bass in the final number, Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild.”

And with that, the show was over.  After much clapping and cheering, the band retired from the stage, the lights came up, and the fans were left to their own devices to slowly herd themselves out through the venue’s very narrow exit door, where a lovely bonus surprise awaited them on their way out—Madam Selia, in formal dress, stood by the bar in the company of Auto-Mod frontman Genet, who wore a black fedora to disguise his bald head, and seemed more than pleased at the number of fans who came up to him to reminisce about last year’s Yagami Toll birthday bash, and ask for his and Selia’s autographs.

Of course, it would have been more exciting to see Buck-Tick than just Toll on his own.  But the unusual nature of these solo live occasions is precisely what makes them special, and I found myself wishing that the other band members would take a leaf out of Toll’s book and play shows all on their own just for fun sometime.  Obviously, for creative artists, original work takes precedence over copies and covers, but at the same time, almost all musicians are fanboys at heart.  It’s that fanboy passion that inspired them to play music in the first place.  Sometimes, it’s okay to let go of your Serious Business for a bit, and play someone else’s songs just because you think they’re awesome.  So while I’m not desperate to see Toll to grow old, I am looking forward to see what he pulls next year.


Set List

SE. Otoko no Sekai Mandom - Lovers Of The World
01. Back in the U.S.S.R. (The Beatles)
02. A Hard Day’s Night (The Beatles)
03. Come Together (The Beatles)
04. That’s All Right (Elvis Presley)
05. Have You Ever Seen the Rain? (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
06. Don’t Let Me Down (The Beatles)
07. Get Back (The Beatles)

~break~

08. Nikui Ano Ko (Carol)
09. Good Old Rock’n’Roll (Dave Clark Five via Carol)
10. Louisiana (Carol)
11. Hey Mama Rock-n-Roll (Carol)
12. Natsu no Owari (Carol)
13. Hey Taxi (Carol)
14. Slow Down (Carol)
15. Funky Monkey Baby (Carol)

~encore

16. F.M.B. (Carol via Yagami Toll & the Blue Sky)
17. Help! (The Beatles)
18. Born To Be Wild (Steppenwolf)