I was on holiday in Japan, determined to catch a gig whilst there, and saw the name The High Llamas. It just so happens that a friend had played me a few tracks of their latest album and what I heard sounded okay so (with no other options available) The High Llamas it was. But at just over £30 a ticket (and I bought two) this was definitely gonna be a one-off holiday treat!
There are several Club Quattros across Japan, the one in Osaka is on the 8th floor of a multi-storey shopping mall. Capacity is probably about 500 and the £30 ticket price also got me a half of lager - yippie - big deal. We arrived about ten minutes before the band were due on (an early, though apparently common, 7pm slot with no support act... sixty quid - no support act - bloody hell!) and little more than 100 people had gathered. By the time the band came on about 7.15pm the numbers had improved to provide a reasonable audience of approximately 200 people; all Japanese (I was the only Westerner), mostly hardcore Llama's fans it seemed, very trendy and laid back. So much so that 90% of them stayed seated throughout, smoking cigarettes, looking cool. The six piece live band had an interesting array of instruments: seven guitars (electric and acoustic), xylophone, synths, a Fender Rhodes keyboard, bass, drums and an array of percussion instruments.
The High Llamas are often compared to Stereolab and whilst both bands share an enthusiasm for squeaky, bleepy, retro-sounding synths, on the evidence of what I heard live I'd say the similarities are few. (Both bands also shared Camberwell addresses which may have prompted the comparisons.) There was just one (mediocre) instrumental - Up In The Hills from their 1994 debut album Gideon Gaye, whilst the very last song (a second encore) was more The Divine Comedy than anyone else. The Beach Boys, Burt Barcarach, and John Barry are all points of reference and having a soft spot for each of those I enjoyed the first 40 minutes very much. But after a while, the novelty elements wore off and my ears began to focus on the less successful elements of the live sound. Lead man Sean (formerly with Microdisney) O'Hagan's vocals were frequently not up to his songwriting and whilst most of the harmonising sounded passable, on his own the limits of his vocal range were frequently exposed. But, to his credit, there were no discernible effects on his vocals whatsoever - a live rarity these days. It was easy to single out O'Hagan's vocals as the clarity of the PA was superb. A loud, full sound filled the low-lit venue but with no distortion at all. Respect most definitely due to Club Quattro's sound engineers.
Once we'd passed the hour mark my early enthusiasm had definitely waned. True this was the tail end of a busy day shopping and that was mostly to blame for my knackered condition. But The High Llamas failed to stop me from sinking to the floor to sit down - taking in the remainder of the set without the 'benefit' of actually seeing the band. For sure, I was the odd fish out of water here. The Osaka trendy set seemed to love every minute - even though their appreciation was confined to rhythmic clapping only after the very last note of each song had sounded. O'Hagan was the most animated of the six men on stage and he frequently spoke to the audience between songs. Apparently, this was the last night of their 'Japan Tour 2000' and they'd played this venue before. He also told them how lucky they were to have such terrific department stores like Tokyu Hands (true). After 70 minutes the band went off stage and prompted by more systematic clapping (and for the first time a few whoops and whistles) came back to deliver a three song encore including the title track from their latest album - Snowbug. Another one song encore followed with many thanks for the audience's support and a promise to return. "Moshi moshi!" O'Hagan said as he left the stage - which means "hello" when speaking on the telephone. Their fans clapped and cheered very politely anyway. I'm sure the majority of those in attendance will venture out again to see The High Llamas. As for me? I think I'll stick to borrowing my friend's CD.
Footnote: As my girlfriend and I left we were collared by a journalist from a local music magazine who wanted to take our photo and interview us. We agreed. I'll try to get hold of a copy of the published piece and post a copy here.