Concert Diary: Asian Kungfu Generation at the NOVO LA

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Asian Kungfu Generation is one of the two bands I constantly tell myself I need to see live before I die, and seeing them last night at the NOVO in downtown Los Angeles during Anime Expo weekend couldn’t have been a more perfect scenario to complete this mission that was years in the making. Last night’s lineup was the same as it has been since 1996, with the always-charming Masafumi Gotou on vocals and rhythm guitar, bassist Takahiro Yamada, lead guitarist Kensuke Kita and drummer Kiyoshi Ijichi. Additionally, a keyboardist joined them for last night’s show, from an up-and-coming J-rock band that I unfortunately completely forgot the name of in the constant madness of this weekend. The fact that these guys have been together for over 20 years was evident- AKG’s live sound is one of the best I’ve ever heard, with stunning and effortless chemistry on stage and fantastic multi-layered vocals and guitar work that absolute stunned me, despite the fact that I was expecting great things from this band’s live show.

The concert began with AKG’s signature sense of understated genius, with the band quietly taking the stage to thunderous applause and immediately jumping into a single from earlier this year, Kouya wo Aruke (lit. Walk in the Wilderness in English). This song was used as the theme song for the anime film The Night is Short, Walk on Girl from this year, for which Yusuke Nakamura, the illustrator for all of AKG’s album artwork, was character designer. AKG has a habit of opening their live shows with the newest material they have on record, which I’m a big fan of. It gets everyone on the same page and really pays off for the people in the crowd who listen to them outside of the works in the anime sphere.

Overall AKG has one of my favorite styles of live performances I’ve ever seen in a rock band, structuring their setlist in a way that bunches big hits together with other big hits, and more underrated or undersold gems together in softer, more contemplative valleys. The set continued with solid choices like Blue Train and Kakato de Ai wo Uchinarase before bringing the house to a deafening crescendo with the opening drum break of After Dark, the seventh opening to the anime series Bleach. With this show taking place on Anime Expo weekend, and the NOVO being right next to the LA Convention Center, obviously the crowd was filled to the brim with people who are most familiar with AKG from their work in anime, and it really showed. Everyone around me (myself including) screamed every word of After Dark, and the energy resulting from over 2,000 people instantly bonding over a song from their youth was undeniable. The boys on stage certainly seemed to be enjoying it, knowing full-well that this was the meat of the show that this crowd was here for.

Immediately following was in my opinion one of the most meaningful AKG songs, Re:Re, the opening theme to 2016’s Erased anime series. This was the famous live version of Re:Re that they’ve been playing for years, and only recently gotten down on tape last year with the release of the OP single for Erased. As much as a love AKG’s classic sound and the original version of this song, there’s something so poetic and melodic about the extended and guitar heavy 2016 version of Re:Re that was totally electrifying to hear live. This was another one where every single person around me (again, including me) knew the words and were screaming them at the top of their lungs. This was the case for pretty much any popular song they played, which made me happy beyond belief.

After Re:Re came an old favorite of mine N.G.S., which is the song I always pick as most emblematic of their earlier style from the early to mid-2000s. Following this was Omatsuri no Ato, another brand-new track that was the B-Side off the Kouya wo Aruke single. The section after this was a mix of rapid-fire tracks with no break in between them, including Yoru no Call, Inmuragasaki Jane, Understand and a truly enrapturing extended live version of 1.2.3.4.5.6. Baby that prominently featured the use of their added-on keyboard player, something I’ve never seen in any live recordings or blurays. Finally, before launching into the explosive last third of their set, Gotou gave a short speech in quite good English extolling his love for Los Angeles and local bands from the southern California area, including Weezer and Foo Fighters, the latter of which have let AKG make use of their California studio to record several recent albums.

Bringing up the Foo Fighters turned out to be very prescient as next up was by far my favorite song and one that was recorded in the Foo Fighters’ studio, Standard. Hearing this live was probably more meaningful for me than many others in that room because it definitely isn’t from an anime or really any other popular Japanese media, so it has to stand on its own merit which, admittedly, is prodigious. Standard ironically sounds a lot like AKG’s take on an old Foo Fighters song, which when heard live makes it a lot more powerful when facing down AKG’s incredibly cohesive and driving live sound. I was jumping up and down and clutching the shoulders of my friends around me as this one played out as there was a significant chance they wouldn’t play it last night, yet its inclusion completed my list of songs that I would want to hear perfectly.

The remainder of the show after this was absolutely packed with big hits and recognizable favorites, starting with Senseless before moving through fan-favorite Rewrite, Blood Circulator (a newer Naruto opening and a big break of AKG’s usual sound), Solanin (written for the live-action movie version of the famous manga and by far one of their most melodic and meaningful songs) before topping it all off with Wonder Future and Ima wo Ikite before walking off-stage nonchalantly. Thunderous cheers and applause continued near-constantly as roadies began to come onstage and tune the band’s numerous instruments in preparation for what was to be a fairly obvious encore, based at least on what songs were not played so far. Soon AKG was back onstage and thanking the fans in Gotou’s signature understated and shy style, with him introducing the band that had been together since 1996.

Once their instruments were back in their place and ready to go, Gotou looked back at Yamada the bassist and smiled knowingly, signaling to all of us what song was to begin their rousing encore. Haruka Kanata’s opening strains ripped through the venue and the crowd surged- this is exactly the song that every single person had come to hear. This was essentially the song that put AKG on the map for US audiences, and it was so exciting to see that the band onstage knew that as much as everyone else. Haruka Kanata’s final chords still ringing out over the audience, AKG launched into their final song, Korogaru Iwa, Kimi no Asa ga Furu or Rock n’ Roll, Morning Light Falls on You. This was a good pick for this show considering that they started it with something a little more obscure and slow, and ended it the same way, albeit with something much more well-known and widespread.

With that, the show ended, AKG took their final bow and I was ejected back out into the cool southern California night with thousands of other people to piece together what our lives now meant having seen one of the most important bands in Japanese rock music. This was a treat that I don’t expect to experience again anytime soon, perhaps not ever again in my life. AKG almost never comes to the United States and when they do, it’s nowhere near where I live, so to see them here amidst thousands of other like-minded people was a privilege I won’t soon forget.