LOS ANGELES -- Shonen Knife opened their U.S. tour on Thursday with a bright blast of sweet, geeky pop.
If their show at the Troubadour was any indication, the Japanese trio -- which first seduced American audiences in the mid-'80s with such slices of catchy, kitschy charm as "I Wanna Eat Choco Bars" and "Flying Jelly Attack" -- has lost none of its seemingly innocent appeal.
"I'm a new convert," said Anthony Felo, 24, from Orange County, sporting a vintage Hawaiian shirt. "I just have the new album and I love it. Before tonight, I didn't realize they had other records."
But they do, beginning with Burning Farm in 1983. And, in the years since, they've succeeded in evolving from a quaint, near-novelty attraction to a quaint, genuinely rocking pop confection.
Surprisingly, the best response on Thursday was evoked by songs from the band's newest release, Happy Hour, including "Banana Chips" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Konnichiwa."
All of the customers at the Troubadour were jammed into the performance room. The upstairs lounge was empty; the street outside, deserted. In the front bar, Shonen Knife merchandise sat unattended, stacks of perfectly folded T-shirts in orange and pink and green vulnerable to snatching, if there was anyone around so inclined. The show may not have been quite sold out, but most of those attending were pre-sold on the band -- they weren't going to miss a beat.
Unless they were asked to keep the beat.
For one new song, "Sushi Bar," singer/guitarist Naoko Yamano asked the audience to clap along, and went on to explain the rhythmic breakdown of the song. The audience tried enthusiastically but just couldn't get it. Finally, by the end, the crowd had it down, neatly clapping out a cha-cha: one, two, one-two-three. "I am very impressed!" bassist Michie Nakatani said.
The band's pop sense of style has always been reflected in their outfits. On Thursday, they were wearing the pantsuits they're pictured in on the inside cover of the recent album: Naoko Yamano in pink, Nakatani in green and drummer Atsuko Yamano (who is also a fashion designer) in orange. Big appliquéd stars lit up their clunky bright flares and tunics.
"I like the outfits," said Danielle Renton, 28, of West Covina, who was sporting a black-and-white vinyl op-art skirt. "They're tailored, which wasn't what I was expecting."
"We come from Osaka," guitarist Yamano said awkwardly into the mic. It's charming that more than a decade of playing across the U.S. hasn't worn down their thick Japanese accents. As she announced the number they'd "play" next, it came out sounding more like "pray": "We're going to pray 'Daydream Believer' for you."
Rodney Bingenheimer, one-time Davy Jones stand-in and legendary new-wave Los Angeles DJ, looked on with amusement as they covered the Monkees song.
The band attempted a "Frankenstein"-like heavy-metal tune, "His Pet" -- a song about, of all things, a carp. Nakatani and guitarist Yamano thrashed back and forth in unison, the effect coming off more like Spinal Tap than Edgar Winter -- how dangerous can you be when you're singing about a fish? But the music rocked convincingly enough to inspire praise from a dangerous-looking type wearing a tattoo and an eyepatch.
When the band ended and walked offstage, the crowd launched a lengthy protest. Fans in front pounded the stage with the flats of their hands. The rest of the audience joined in, their clapping steadily developing a rhythm and then giving way to a chant: Sho-nen Knife! Sho-nen Knife! In jaded cities like L.A., such an encore usually seems contrived, but it wasn't the case at this event. When the trio reappeared and lit into two final songs, fans clapped with their hands held over their heads and danced to the music en masse.
Even after the last note and the band's final bow, the cheers continued.