Japan Traditional Nite/eX-Girl, SXSW XX, March 17, 2006, Austin, TX

When SXSW announced the line-up for Japan Traditional Nite, I was really concerned about how the festival could pull it off.

I couldn’t picture someone singing shima uta in a loud, crowded club. Maybe if the shamisen players booked for that night all played like Yoshida Kyoodai, it’s remotely possible.

Thankfully, Japan Traditional Nite was held in the Creekside Dining Room of Capitol Place Hotel, complete with seating and a nice view of Waller Creek.

I am a geezer, because nothing could pull me away from a SXSW venue with seating. (Actually, a Tony Conrad showcase would …)

Japan Traditional Nite was hosted by a photojournalist and shamisen expert, whose name I didn’t write down. I guess that’s the reason I’m a former journalist.

He explained how the three-stringed shamisen, often compared to a banjo in the West, could trace its roots to Egypt. As it spread through Japan, different regions of the island chain created their own style of music with the instrument.

Opening performer Uchizato Mika from Okinawa sang and played solo, competing with the muffled noise emanating from the Habana Calle 6 patio. Uchizato’s music was compared to the folk music of Ireland, in the way both countries music deal with foreign occupation and longing.

(Aside: Check out the error-ridden write-up of Japan Traditional Nite in the Austin Chronicle. If writer Dan Oko stuck around, he would have caught Umekichi in full geisha regale. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard of Okinawa, not Okinaga.)

Uchizato performs the same kind of traditional music Hajime Chitose did as teenage folk performer, and while nobody can touch Hajime’s singular voice, Uchizato certainly does a terrific job reaching that level.

By contrast, Oono Keisho picked his shamisen like an electric guitar over an adult contemporary jazz backdrop. I was a fan of the Los Angeles fusion band Hiroshima back in high school, when I didn’t know any better.

Hiroshima hasn’t evolved much in 20 years, and Oono’s east-meets-west combo could fall in the same trap. That night, though, Oono’s fiery performance put any doubt to rest. Fusion may be dated, but virtuosity is timeless.

Umekichi took the evening to a historical midpoint between Uchizato and Oono. The consumate geisha started her showcase with a dance, then greeted the audience in well-rehearsed English.

She explained how she performs traditional shamisen music in addition to "Japanese boogie-oogie" popular during World War II. And Umekichi went on to demonstrate her full range, complete with dancing troup.

I never thought a SXSW showcase could be both entertaining and educational.

The Japanese boogie-oogie pieces felt as dated as they were, but Umekichi’s tasteful choreography made history come alive. She provided a window to the past in the middle of a festival where hip and new reigns supreme.

Ooshima Yasukatsu reprised Okinawa’s presence at Japan Traditional Nite, performing the same style of music as Uchizato earlier in the evening. Unfortuantely, Ooshima’s range of material wasn’t as diverse as Uchizato, and his contemplative set couldn’t compete with the band raging over at Habana Calle 6.

Japan Traditional Nite concluded with perhaps the most natural and most bizarre meeting of east and west — shamisen bluegrass.

The comparrison between shamisen and banjo was taken to its extreme conclusion with the Last Frontier featuring Kunimoto Takeharu.

Despite being a bluegrass fan as a teenager, Kunimoto was instead drafted to perform roukyouku, a combination of music and storytelling.

After mastering the form, Kunimoto ingeniously cast the style in a bluegrass setting. Both bluegrass and roukyoku emphasize narrative — hearts get broken in Japan as well — and shamisen mixes incredibly well with guitar, banjo, fiddle and upright bass. It almost makes me wish every bluegrass band had a shamisen player.

The ensemble’s riveting and entertaining set almost made me miss eX-Girl.

At this point, eX-Girl has gone through so many line-up changes, they may as well rename themselves Guided By Voices. (It’s not like Robert Pollard is going to use that name anytime soon.)

Kirilola has been the only constant in eX-Girl since a revolving door of drummers and guitarists began in 2001. Part of me still misses Fuzuki and Chihiro.

The band cleverly describes each member change as a new mission from Planet Kero.

Chapple left the band — I’m sorry, finished her mission in late 2004 but was recommissioned for eX-Girl’s April 2006 US tour. I didn’t get to see Chapple since I was standing in front of the amplifier near the stage.

The Jackalope is a shitty place to hold live music. There’s no space for an audience, and the stage was formerly used as a karaoke performing space.

The crowd waited restlessly for eX-Girl’s elaborate sound check. It’s a long way since Kirilola stomped on a Casio toy keyboard for synthesizer effects.

As usual, eX-Girl made their grand entrance in full costume, this time in crab suits. A projector flashed crude animation against the side wall of the stage as the trio tore through a set list culled from their best albums — Kero! Kero! Kero!, Back to the Mono Kero and Endangered Species.

I’ve seen eX-Girl enough times now that the performance holds no surprises for me, but the way the audience feeds off of the band — and how the band feeds of the audience — is something that never gets old.

A friend of mine joined me for the showcase, after having heard me and another friend talk the band up. "They’re not changing my life," she remarked, "but they sure make me want to be them."