February 13, 2020. That night I went to what I thought would be the first of several concerts I had lined up in 2020. Instead it would be one and only concert I would go to in 2020, as a global pandemic froze the world and all of live music with it. September 14, 2021. The night live music finally came back for me and I didn’t realize until I set foot into The Athenauem Theatre in Columbus, Ohio how much I truly missed it. But let’s back up a bit first. Let’s talk about the artist I would be seeing that night, Japanese Breakfast.
Before 2021, I had never listened to Japanese Breakfast before. I had heard of this indie rock band based out of Philadelphia in passing, but I had never stopped to listen. But then I listened to their new single released early in 2021, “Be Sweet.” And man was I hooked! Then I listened to the follow-up single “Posing in Bondage” released in the spring and now I needed to hear more of them. So I listened to their previous albums and I liked what I heard with this too. Granted it’s certainly a bit different from the two singles, but quite enjoyable nonetheless. The main contrast of course is their previous albums are much darker since they focus on lead singer Michelle Zauner’s mother’s battle with cancer and the grief and pain surrounding it. Zauner promised the new album Jubilee would focus on happiness and joy. It would be a clear departure in sound and style. With that being said, I knew I was taking a risk buying a ticket to a concert in April that wouldn’t be until September and before the album released in June. What if I don’t enjoy the album? What if the music doesn’t hold up? And what if COVID would rear its ugly head to derail live music once again? But in the spring when concerts were popping back up for the first time in what felt like forever, the thrill and excitement of buying a concert ticket outweighed these concerns. And the concerns of not enjoying the album were quickly erased after listening to it thoroughly. It’s hands down one of my favorites of 2021! So my faith paid off. Now I just had to wait and see what the answer would be to the last question…
COVID did rear its ugly head again, but not enough to derail live music. But it would be enough to show live music would not be the same as it once was before upon my return that September night at The Athenauem Theatre. As us ticket holders were told weeks ahead of time, at the request of the band, you would have to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. In addition, masks would also be required to wear at all times in the venue (except when eating and drinking of course). The former would be no problem, as I gladly got my vaccine months earlier. The latter admittedly troubled me a bit a few weeks before the show. I of course understood the why and the need for the masks. But would it make for an uncomfortable show? Would it make for a less than enjoyable experience? After all this was something none of us had to do before at a concert. Despite my worries, I chose to not get a refund when offered the opportunity, made sure to get a comfortable mask and eagerly anticipated my first show back in over a year and a half.
So I arrive at the front doors of The Athenaum Theatre, both nervous due to not knowing what to expect and excited to be back in the throes of live music. Before even entering the venue, you had to provide your proof of vaccination or negative test along with an ID. This also doubled as checking for your age to see if you’re 21 or not. I gotta say this is actually quite smart, killing two birds with one stone! And not only that, it was quite a smooth process too. It was smooth also upon getting inside and checking in digitally. Well done to the staff of the venue! After this I realized it was just like how I remembered live music to be. You’re filing in, peeping where the merch stand is at and observing the sights and sounds of the venue. This last part is definitely important when going to a venue for the first time, which it was for me with The Athenauem.
I then entered the theatre itself: a somewhat long ballroom, standing room only floor that stretched from the entrance up to the stage and surrounded on each side as bleacher-like seating. While I’m sure the seating is nice for some, I want to be where the energy is at and that’s on the floor close to the stage. The opener for the show and entire tour, Luna Li, had already begun playing. I had actually made sure to check her music out before the show months in advance and I found her music to be enjoyable too, which only made me anticipate this show more. And I picked a great moment, as I recognized she had just started playing “Trying.” As I stood there and listened, I took a look around me and basked in the moment. A big grin broke out across my face under my mask. This moment I had been waiting for, this moment I had anticipated for so many months, it had finally arrived. Live music is back!
Luna Li ended up putting on a really good set, especially considering her and her band are so new. They haven’t even put out a whole album yet, just a few EPs. But I think Luna Li has a lot of potential, as their dreamy, chamber pop is certainly intriguing. Luna Li herself told the audience how grateful she was to be opening for Japanese Breakfast, as she said seeing one of their shows five years earlier in Toronto had made a big impact on her. She specifically mentioned seeing an artist like Michelle Zauner on stage was a big deal for her and the importance of seeing representation firsthand were quite inspiring. I also enjoyed Li’s fun play through of her jams EP, breaking out the violin and a tiny guitar she had just bought.
After Luna Li’s set had finished, I exited the theater to of course go get a better look at the merch stand. As is usually the case, I end up getting more than I anticipate. Damn you Japanese Breakfast for designing a cool poster and T-shirt. I also ended up having a nice conversation with the dude running the merch stand. I wore my favorite Sturgill Simpson shirt to the show, as it’s customary for me to wear a T-shirt of an artist similar to the headlining artist of the show I’m seeing. Yes, I know Sturgill and Japanese Breakfast aren’t real similar, but this was the closest I had. Chalk it up to years of mostly country shows and very little indie shows. But also this shirt I consider lucky, as it’s never failed to help me strike up a conversation up with at least one person at the show. So the streak continued, as we discussed how much we enjoyed Sturgill’s Sound & Fury album, which hey upon further thinking isn’t very different from Japanese Breakfast’s music. I was pleasantly surprised to hear him mention this album, as we both agreed it was underrated and under-appreciated. It’s a shame the music was never fully toured. We said our goodbyes and I then set off for a place to sit and catch my breath and rest before Japanese Breakfast would come on stage.
After this break I make my way back into the theater and take my spot before Japanese Breakfast make their entrance. And they start it off with an absolute bang, opening with “Paprika.” First off I’m a bit shocked they open with this, but at the same time I’m not because this song is just incredible. It also opens Jubilee and I was absolutely floored the very first time I heard it. It’s one of three songs on this album I would put on my favorite songs of 2021 list. “Paprika” may just be the best of the three though. Between the striking lyrics and the brilliant buildup to the end of the chorus where the saxophone comes crashing in and Zauner’s goosebump-inducing deliver of “Oh it’s a rush,” this song is just beautifully perfect. The two words that immediately come to mind for it are eloquence and joy. And hearing it live in-person, the cascading rush is even more incredible. The energy between both the band and the crowd, it’s an indescribable high that you can only get from live music.
Then it’s followed up with another amazing high in “Be Sweet” (which is also the second of my three favorite songs on Jubilee). I’m such a sucker for 80s pop and this song wears that influence proudly on it’s sleeve. The lyrics are instantly catchy, as I was pretty much addicted to this song when it dropped and played it on a loop to the point I was worried I would over play it to the point of hating it. But then I realized the limit doesn’t exist. And the melody is so damn infectious. How could you not want to dance to this? Not to mention the music video for this is so much fun and one of my favorites in recent memory, as it revolves around trying to find aliens. That’s right up there with Chris Stapleton in Lego form fighting a dragon with his guitar in the kind of absurd shit I love in music videos.
So with this one-two punch right out of the gate, I knew this was going to be a really fun show and what a fun show it was. The third of the aforementioned favorite songs “Tactics” absolutely blew me away. It’s such a sad sounding song, as the ache in which Zauner delivers the lyrics punches you right in the gut. The sound is gorgeous, but then again you can say that about all the production on Jubilee. But as I said before, Japanese Breakfast’s previously was quite sad and the band is sure to give us a dose of that in two songs that really stood out to me during the show. The first is “Boyish” from Soft Sounds From Another Planet. Part dark humor, more crushing disappointment, the song is about being attracted to someone who clearly isn’t attracted to you. The line of course that most poignantly showcases all of this is “I can’t get you off my mind, I can’t get you off in general.” The second song is “In Hell,” which is definitely a song that’s an exception the joyfulness that fills Jubilee. Zauner even introduced the song by saying, “And here’s the saddest song ever” and she’s not wrong. “With my luck you’ll be dead within the year, I’ve come to expect it” are the lyrics that open the song, as Zauner recalls with vivid emotion the death of her mother. It’s depressingly sad stuff, but it’s also tragically moving. You quickly understand why Zauner did sad songs for so long, as her ability to convey grief and devastation in her vocals is unquestionably one of her greatest artistic abilities.
At this point in the show I took a moment to observe the crowd around me. After my last show having arguably the rudest crowd I had ever been a part of, this crowd was great. Everybody was chill, polite and having a great time. More shockingly, pretty much everybody was wearing their masks! I couldn’t believe this. I thought for sure there would be a lot of people nursing beers to keep their masks down. Granted not everybody was wearing them I knew, as the usual concert odor of weed filled the air at one point and I don’t see how you could smoke under a mask. I would find out at my next concert how different crowds react to a mask requirement (that’s for another post). Speaking of mask, I was surprised myself of how little I noticed my own. I thought for sure I would be getting hot and annoyed at it, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it was little issue.
Japanese Breakfast would end the regular portion of the show just how they started it: with two bangers, “Slide Tackle” and “Everybody Wants to Love You.” Both of these songs had the crowd in a frenzy, especially towards the front of the stage. On the former it was absolutely crazy when at the end where the song slowly builds into an explosion of euphoria that comes with the saxophone solo. I along with everyone else lost their shit with this solo. Saxophones just make music even better. On the latter song, everybody was singing along with it because well it’s basically the hook over and over and the energy of this song just begs you to go along with it.
After this we did the traditional song and dance of cheering wildly for the encore performance, in which we were treated to Zauner coming out on stage solo and performing “Posing For Cars” and slowly being joined by another member of the band throughout the song until the end when we get the amazing guitar solo that closes the song out. We then heard the final song of the song, the eery, dystopian yet funky “Diving Woman.” By the way the lights and entertainment production were top notch throughout the whole show, with the highlights being the aquatic, dreamy background during “Posing In Bondage” (see above) and the closer “Diving Woman,” where flashing red lights just felt so appropriate going with the crunchy guitar riffs that litter the song. And thus concluded a fantastic show from Japanese Breakfast.
With a slight sweat on my forehead and a beaming smile on my face, I walk out of the theater filled with overwhelming joy. Live music is back. And I couldn’t be happier.