Did you know that every Friday night in San Francisco there’s a group of people who put on helmets and neon glowsticks and tiny flashing lights and go rollerskating all over town? I didn’t either, until I saw them at the Palace of Fine Arts last Friday as I was coming out of a concert. There wasn’t much of a crowd — just a few figures circling the smooth marble floor underneath the rotunda’s colossal dome, weaving and ducking, their wheels clacking along to the tinny 70s funk coming from someone’s radio. It was a still night, and beyond the shadowy columns and archways of the rotunda lay the pond, darkly glimmering. If the rollerskaters hadn’t been there the whole tableau would have felt mystic, solemn, occult in that harsh Hellenistic way — all stone and consequence. But there they were, in Velcro wristguards and reflective tape, unbearably small and unbearably human, gliding their way through the night.
It seems too pat to say this, too easy a leap from visual to metaphorical truth, but I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe Kishi Bashi than “neon rollerskater against a classical backdrop.” Billed as a “beatboxing violinist,” Kishi Bashi is the stage name of Kaoru Ishibashi, an engineering-school dropout turned lowkey indie star who’s worked alongside the likes of Regina Spektor and Of Montreal. You’ve probably heard his solo work, even if you don’t realize it. It’s in that Windows 8 commercial, and also that Sony commercial, and probably some other ones — honestly his music is perfect for commercials, and that’s not an insult, because like how difficult is it to produce an emotional atmosphere so dense and vivid it can make you feel something in thirty seconds or less?
Ordinarily, Kishi Bashi works alone, creating lush arrangements with only a violin, a set of pedals, and a voice that swoops easily from clear baritone to bright falsetto. On this particular night, he was joined by a full string quartet as well as Elizabeth Ziman (of opening band Elizabeth and the Catapult, sweetly weird singer-songwriter pop) and Mark Savino (of Tall Tall Trees, whose website cites a headline that reads “Bearded man sings songs, violates banjo” — frankly I don’t feel the need to expand upon that description). Since I haven’t seen Kishi Bashi’s solo shows at any point, I can’t credibly make any distinction from a typical performance, but from the moment he stepped onstage and drew a conductor’s baton from his mauve waistcoat, I knew I was in for something really tremendous.
Although I don’t know enough about the technical side of music to gauge whether or not he’s a good conductor, I do know how it feels to watch someone do something like they mean it, and that’s what happened all night. The string players were impeccable (is there another word for string players, so straightbacked and elegant?); Savino beat his banjo with a drumstick and howled through his copious beard; Ziman crooned. Kishi Bashi himself occupied a space somewhere between seasoned professional performativity and raw nerves — “I’m really nervous tonight,” he said at one point, and then, “I think it’s because this is my favorite city to play. You guys are — what do they call it? My target market.”
Kishi Bashi’s music is made for dreamers. It’s the kind that makes your mind wander, the sort that spirals out and out until the air shimmers with it, almost thick enough to touch. The sounds wrap you up and take you away until you hardly forget where you are or what you’re really listening to. At one point, as the stage lights deepened to moody pink, I found myself fixated on his showy corsage — what a nice thing it is, I thought, to wear a corsage; how strange and lovely that we pin flowers on ourselves on days when we are important, and it happens so often, so many people have pinned flowers on so many others for so many reasons, and we’ve gone walking around feeling the whole universe open up for us. And then the song was over, and there was a new song, and it began anew, four or five minutes more, another rhapsody.
Joy permeates Kishi Bashi’s sound — some of it is even upbeat enough to dance to, as demonstrated during a three-song stretch when audiences were urged to rise from their seats and bop along to bouncy crowdpleasers like “Carry On Phenomenon” and “The Ballad of Mr Steak.” But often that joy is cut through with a weird delicate sorrow, a note here or a word there that pushes a song from chintzy quirk into something fucked up and believable. Often it’s about love, because I mean, what isn’t, but also just as much about not-love, or what could have been love. Oh in the desert you sucked my finger, goes “Atticus in the Desert,” and then — it wasn’t meant to be, it was like water from leather. “Once Upon A Dreaming (in Afrikaans),” from the newest album Lighght, gets to the heart of things in two lines: I need to know this love is real / I want to feel the sadness.
The word intimate is overused to describe concert experiences — usually as shorthand for watching a solo artist perform in a cramped venue — but it is the word I keep returning to, the only word that feels like it gets at everything I saw and felt last Friday. Intimate is what it is when someone admits to you they’re nervous. Intimate is someone telling you “this song is about vampires,” “this song is about my own idea of a creation myth where the universe was created by cosmic lovers,” “this song is about a dream I had where I was dying.” Intimate is when someone insists on turning the lights on — which happened, partway through the show, when Kishi Bashi said “Can you bring up the house lights? I want to see who I’m playing to — it’s so dark out there it could be anyone. It could be a pack of lions.”
During the show, we lions bore witness to two improvised pieces. First, our fearless headliner alone with his violin, bowing and warping and looping until the air filled with a high twittering noise that sounded like garbled, eerie fey laughter above our heads. “This is really cool,” he said, and then, withdrawing an iPhone from his pocket, “Actually, you know what, I’m gonna record this. God, sorry, this is really unprofessional! I wouldn’t normally do this. This is how I write most of my songs though.” He joked that we could hear it again on the new album, and a ripple of excitement ran through the audience (intimate is hearing something no one has ever heard before). The second improvisation came during the encore, when everyone filed back onstage and stood right at the edge of it, almost too close to the audience, unprotected by chairs or mics or space. “This is gonna be an acoustic set,” Kishi Bashi said, his unamplified voice swallowed up by the room. Gently at first, he began to play, and one at a time his cohort joined in, looking to him for cues. The sounds clashed, skewed, overlapped with one another in a sloppy mishmash of eight notes and sudden high screeches. It wasn’t something anyone would want to record. It was, objectively, bad. But there is something so freeing and delightful and important about watching people who are good at the thing the do as they do something objectively bad, something purposefully messy and weird and unplanned, just for the sake of doing it. Each of them looked careful, concentrating; each person was so visibly trying, so visibly working, without any of the usual polish of performance, that it felt difficult to look at them. And at the same time, it was, ostensibly, a performance for the audience. We were there to look. We were there for them. Intimate is how it feels when you watch someone try, how it feels to look at someone who has asked you to look at them.
At last they segued into the song that is Kishi Bashi’s closest approximation to a smash hit — “Bright Lights” — and the intensity lessened, the whole room relaxed. And again, I cannot find a word other than intimate to describe the feeling of watching a group of people, small and bright under the vast proscenium, play as they might have played in rehearsals: clustered in a ragged semicircle, loose and easy and grinning. The breathlessness of the improvisation still hung over us, and we in the audience mostly stood quiet for fear of overpowering the bare music that floated out into the velvety dark. But there were moments we couldn’t contain ourselves from singing alone, when a kind of deep hum rose up — the sort of noise that is felt in the chest rather than heard — and everything seemed to be blending at the edges, air spilling into sound spilling into velvet curtains and violin strings and other humans. That’s intimacy, I think. It really is.