Let me preface this review by saying I’m a sucker for two things — sitting down and strummed violins.
Basically, the Kishi Bashi String Quartet performance at Union Transfer Feb. 18 was the perfect concert for me.
Union Transfer is a famous Philadelphia concert venue, and many bands make it their home when touring in Philadelphia. Typically, however, the performances are standing room only, allowing for a packed house and a rowdy atmosphere. That isn’t quite how the Kishi Bashi show was.
When I arrived at the venue half an hour before the start, it looked less like a paid, professional concert and more like a middle school band concert.
Arranged in orderly rows in front of the stage extending to the bar in the back were hundreds of plastic folding chairs where typically the space would be open.
I took a seat (which felt weird), and waited patiently for the opening act, Busman’s Holiday. Coming in I knew nothing of the two-man group of brothers, Lewis Rogers and Addison Rogers.
Because I didn’t know any of their music, I’m not sure exactly what song they started with, but I will say that it was a real treat. Lewis is the main vocalist and plays the guitar, while Addison primarily functions as a percussionist and back-up vocalist.
Busman’s Holiday has a creative interpretation of on-stage percussion, using limited instrumentation to create a unique variety of sounds throughout their performance, including using a literal suitcase as a bass drum and Addison beating his chest to create a beat in lieu of actual drums.
As Busman’s Holiday wrapped up to a soulful duet rendition of “The Last Waltz,” the final song from their first album, “Old Friends,” the excitement within the crowd began to build for the headliner.
Kaoru Ishibashi, better known by the moniker Kishi Bashi, is touring to promote his late 2014 orchestral pop album, “Lighght” which is pronounced “light.”
The album itself is a wonderful mixture of soaring vocals and diverse violin instrumentation covering imaginative topics, including vampires on “In Fantasia” and a reimagining of the generation of the Earth on “Bittersweet Genesis for Him AND Her.”
After about 30 minutes of anticipation, the string quartet began to take their place and the lights dimmed. Kishi Bashi finally emerged and walked on to stage with little introduction and began to conduct his string section. As the strings set the backdrop, he took the stage and began a passionate performance of arguably his most well-known song, “Manchester.”
As his performance went on, the decision to perform to a seated audience made total sense.
Similar to a middle school band concert, it fostered a quaint, friendly atmosphere, Kishi Bashi embracing the audience like old friends there to see what he’s been up to.
Going forward, Kishi Bashi reeled off the hits from “Lighght” with skill and imaginative energy.
A particular highlight was his performance of “I Am the Antichrist to You,” which featured the first experience of just vocals, as the string quartet was silent. With low lights and just vocals, the song shone through as a singularly quiet experience in the night.
During “Atticus, In the Desert,” there was a certain transformation in the headliner. Where the first half of the performance was filled with light string sets with swooping vocals and a sense of lightness, the second half alternated to as close to rock-and-roll as Kishi Bashi can get.
At one point, he bent his head back and strummed his violin in a classic rockstar pose, and it seemed oddly appropriate. During the set and in all of his music, Kishi Bashi substitutes a more classical, nuanced sound where most performers utilize more traditional instrumentation.
At the beginning of “Carry on Phenomenon,” Kishi Bashi requested that the crowd stand up for the first time in the set, and what followed was as energetic as the whole show would get. He danced throughout the stage and the crowd joined in, clapping and singing along.
From that point on, he performed more upbeat songs from “Lighght” and then thanked the crowd for coming out. After he left the stage, absolutely no one in the crowd thought the performance was over. It was a little after 11 p.m., but Kishi Bashi had neglected to perform one of his biggest hits, “Bright Whites.”
When he inevitably came back out, he brought out the string quartet and treated the crowd to his first acoustic set of the night, requesting that the crowd come closer to the stage and listen to the beauty of the instruments.
It was an incredible end to a spectacular show, one of the most unique I’ve ever been to.