At Kishi Bashi’s performance in Portland, some were probably surprised to learn that their city was one of the first to completely ‘purge’ their city of Japanese-Americans during the time of World War II internment camps. This topic has weighed heavily on Kaoru Ishibashi for the last few years, so much so that he’s created not just an album about it, but also a documentary - or in his words, a ‘songfilm.’ Funded by Indiegogo backers, the film Omoiyari will be on its way in 2020 (“Don’t sue me!”, Ishibashi exclaimed), but the album of the same title is out now. He could have easily sold out a room the size of 9:30 Club in DC or Crystal Ballroom in Portland, but his performance at The Old Church was billed as an intimate affair for a crowd of roughly 300. Those that were smart enough to snag tickets for the completely sold-out North American tour were treated to a fantastic six-piece band bringing many of Omoiyari’s tracks to life, and much more.
Despite the dark subject matter of Omoiyari and dropping the truth-bomb about Portland’s dark history with Japanese-American internment, Kishi Bashi and the crowd were in positive spirits throughout the show. Still, it’s hard not to feel emotional on songs like “Forgotten Words (Theme from Jerome),” a song about how Japanese mothers in the Jerome war camp would sing to their children in their native language, one that their children would never learn due to forced assimilation. “To have to suppress your own culture or origin is a painful thing to comprehend,” Ishibashi said in explaining the song. Openers Takenobu, a husband-and-wife duo on cello and violin, provided powerful and emotional solos as Kishi Bashi’s backing string section, as did Ishibashi himself, though he was apt to switch between violin, acoustic guitar, and keyboard at any time. Along with Athens-based musician Pip the Pansy on flute and Tall Tall Trees on banjo/stand-up bass/bass guitar, the songs respected the intimate setting of the show - they weren’t ear-piercingly loud, and they brimmed with musical textures that made them feel as alive as they do on the album.
Music unites people across communities, and in creating his album and film, Ishibashi has learned this through his travels and conversations across the country. He had this to say near the end of his performance:
“It boggles the mind that we could be so inconsiderate, but we all have that capacity to change, and that humility makes me excited about where humanity is headed.”
The band closed the show by inviting the audience into an adjacent antechamber where, unplugged and surrounded by the attendees, the performed “Manchester” as the crowd sang along. This kind of experience will be hard to replicate later this year as he gears up for a tour in larger venues in the fall. Those that were lucky enough to get tickets early were treated up close and personal to Kishi Bashi’s greatest strength - creating musical moments that will last a lifetime.