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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reunited X Japan Finally Comes to the States, Thrills Fox Theater

Posted By on Wed, Sep 29, 2010 at 8:14 AM

  • Richard Haick
X Japan
September 28, 2010
@ The Fox Theater, Oakland

Better than: A band that's been out of the business for most of the last decade has any right to be.

After the parade of former protégés who've hit American shores over the past few years, it's cool to finally see X Japan doing a tour of its own.

The question is, can the band pull it off? With a singer who's been mostly out of the business for a decade and a drummer who's dealing with multiple health problems (including one that put him through surgery a couple of years ago) the odds would seem to be against it. And then there's new guitarist Sugizo - there's no question that he's brilliant, but he's also replacing a legend whose distinctive style was quite different from his successor's. With all the obstacles in its path, can this iconic Japanese rock outfit really still be the band that spawned a thousand imitators?

Going by last night's show at the Fox Theater, the answer is yes.

  • Richard Haick
Even though it's been a long time since X did a real tour, there have been a few one-off reunion shows, and the band seems to have worked through any rustiness issues. The integration of Sugizo is complete, too - although he took a few moments to shine on violin, he seems to have made the decision to allow his own personal guitar style to be subsumed for the greater good, and X still sounds like X, even without Hide.

How to describe that sound? A bit of hard rock, strong hints of '80s hair- and speed-metal, some heavy classical influences, and a lot of very emotional, tear-jerking ballads. OK, so the ballads aren't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but you have to give credit where it's due - Yoshiki is a hell of a piano player. In fact, musically, all of X was rock solid. Singer Toshi has a voice that people tend to either love or hate, but whichever camp you fall into, you have to admit that it's held up well over time. He was still able to hit those high notes, and he was able to sustain them too, something that's not always the case with vocalists once they hit their 40s.

  • Richard Haick
Though far smaller than the venues the members are used to, the rather opulent, elegant Fox Theater turned out to be a perfect setting for X Japan. It's a grown-up sort of band, headed by the most baby-faced elder statesman in the industry, and its sound is big and bombastic, made for arenas. It wouldn't seem right for the band to be in a dirty little club - it's too dramatic, too over the top - but the relative intimacy of Fox Theater represented a good compromise.

Last night's show felt like a family reunion. The audience was full of fans that had flown in from Japan, many holding cute little dolls as a tribute to much-missed former guitarist Hide. The crowd was a good mix of old and new - people in their forties mingled with teenagers, and it was sometimes hard to tell the difference without getting a close look at the faces. X Japan fans have been waiting a long time for this - the band broke up before it was able to do an American tour, and so there are a lot of American fans who never thought they'd get the chance to see X live. Those older fans may well have been the second-most thrilled group of people at Fox - some of them were too grown up and dignified to actually scream like teenagers, but nothing could put a damper on the overwhelming air of excitement. 

  • Richard Haick
The happiest people in the room, though, seemed to be the band members themselves. Yoshiki was positively gleeful, hamming it up with a big smile and basking in the adoration of the crowd. There aren't many drummers who are real showmen, but this one certainly is - whether it was draping himself dramatically across his piano or banging the giant cymbal to the right of his drum-kit, he was clearly in his element, and the interaction between him and the audience was a beautiful thing to behold. That might have been the most striking thing about the whole show, how obvious it was that the audience still genuinely loves X Japan in that pure, intense way that people love their favorite band when they're in high school. To see that feeling radiating from so many adults was a moving experience.

Yoshiki wasn't the only one reveling in the moment. Singer Toshi was clearly happy to be back too, and even the more reserved Pata and Heath cracked a few smiles. The show also proved that adding Sugizo to the line-up was a good decision - you'd think it might not work, having two performers as showy and attention-grabbing as he and Yoshiki in the same band, but they played off of each other brilliantly, sharing the spotlight in a way that conveyed clear mutual respect for each other's considerable talents.

  • Richard Haick
​The setlist was solid too, and put together in a way designed to demonstrate the versatility that makes the band special. Harder, more metal-inflected songs like "Drain" and "Rusty Nail" were interspersed with softer moments, including a particularly memorable piano and violin interlude. They even managed to work a truncated version of "Art of Life" into the encore, much to the obvious delight of the audience.

Highlight of the show? Definitely when the band stopped playing in the middle of "Endless Rain" and just let the audience sing it back to them. I've never seen anything like it - an entire audience singing in key and in time with each other, and all of them seemed to know every word. Beautiful.

  • Richard Haick
​In the end that moment pretty much summed up the whole show. Both X Japan and its fans have been waiting a long time for this tour, and the band put on exactly the sort of show that fans wanted to see. But it wasn't a nostalgic, trapped in amber sort of performance - it was warm and full of life.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: I never really understood why this band in particular was so huge, so much bigger than all the other Japanese bands that on the surface seem equally competent. All it took was one show to make it very clear why X Japan is such a phenomenon in its homeland. If there was ever a band that demonstrated exactly why charisma and the ability to connect with an audience are so important, it's these guys. Frankly, I was never an X fan, so I went in not expecting to be all that impressed, and yet impress me they did. There aren't many bands that do that. 

The crowd: Diverse in age and gender but leaning heavily Japanese. It was particularly cool to see so many people in their 40s turn out to see a show.

  • Richard Haick
Overheard in the crowd: Some women in the front row said they'd flown in from just outside Tokyo. Also heard were many chants of former guitarist Hide's name, which drummer Yoshiki later confessed made him tear up a little.

Random notebook dump: I have never seen this many men turn out to see any Japanese band other than Boris. Don't get me wrong, I love how woman-friendly VK is, but it was really cool to see a more even gender balance for once. Also, I am now convinced that Yoshiki has discovered the fountain of youth, because in person he looks about 25. If he could bottle his anti-aging secret he'd be the richest man in the world.

Did you know: This is the first American tour for X Japan, but if it goes well it won't be the last - Yoshiki stated that this tour is an "experiment". It's looking good so far.

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