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Freddy Cole

Genetic style

Like his old brother Nat, Freddy Cole specializes in an urbane form of pop-jazz, and while he isn't quite as fleet-fingered on the piano and his singing style is a bit rougher, in a sense he's always steered a steadier course, more along the lines of Bobby Short. Though he's always benefited from his brother's long shadow, he's also been a true independent. He started his own label back in the 80s and has covered material by classic rock artists like Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, and Smokey Robinson, and his blues work is sublime. After the turn of the century he delved deeper into Latin music, especially the Brazilian canon, and every so often he puts out a serious jazz vocal album that shows off his instrumental chops. He always manages to come to Japan around the holidays, and his performances are warm, the perfect thing to take the chill off.

Dec. 28-30 at 5:00 & 8:00 and Dec. 31 at 10:30, Cotton Club, Yurakucho. ¥8,000-¥19,000. Box office, 03-3215-1555.


The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

Honest-to-goodness indie

Nobody begrudges indie bands the help of a superstar producer the way they used to, so this New York-based guitar-pop quartet with the wincingly earnest name only earned props for getting Flood and Alan Moulder to helm their sophomore effort, Belong. Initially boosted as neo-shoegazers, and literary neo-shoegazers, too boot, the group comes off as a progressive power pop outfit with more pedestrian concerns. That Kip Berman's girlish whisper pushes to the front of the churning instrumental mix indicates that lo-fi just won't do any more, but he also sounds more honestly in love, when love happens to be the topic. The band necessarily loses much of its appealing spunk in the bargain, but it's impossible to listen to these songs and not be reminded of the producers' past glories, the U2 roar of the title song, the Depeche Modish bounce of "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now."

Jan. 21 at 6:00, WWW X, Shibuya. ¥6,000. Smash, 03-3444-6751.


The Original Sugarhill Gang

Accept no substitutes

More of a historical footnote than an actual band, the Sugarhill Gang was "created" by label owner Sylvia Robinson in the late 70s to take advantage of the popular hip-hop block parties that were sweeping the Bronx. She found three MCs—Master Gee, Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank—and got them to record a single together, the infectious "Rapper's Delight," which stole the break from Chic's "Good Times." It became an international hit, the first rap track to ever go global and platinum, selling more than 8 million copies. Though the trio went on to record a few more hits ("8th Wonder," "Apache"), nothing approached their first one, and in the meantime rap was blowing up big time. By the mid-80s they three had gone their separate ways, only to reunite in 1999 for a hip-hop album for kids called Jump On It. Since then they've gotten together every once in a while to tour on their name, which prefigures every rap sub-genre you can think of. Lightweight, sure, but they came from a culture where people really knew how to party.

Dec. 30 at 4:30 & 7:30, Billboard Live Tokyo, Roppongi. ¥8,500 & ¥10,000. Box office, 03-3405-1133.


Declan McKenna

Channeled rancor

As they say, you write about what you know, which is why this very young singer-songwriter from Hertfordshire shocked a lot of people with his first single, "Brazil," which was about the FIFA corruption scandal that erupted in 2015. Some didn't necessarily think McKenna should stick his nose in such a bear trap of a topic, but it mostly goes to show the guy's passion, and, in any case, it earned him a lot of attention. He wowed Glastonbury and signed to Columbia, becoming, as one music magazine put it, "the voice of his generation." And whereas most songwriters of his age and ilk covered personal topics, he sang about police brutality, religion, terrorism and anything else on the news. Last summer he ripped through a blazing set of his songs with the swagger of a young Dylan and the snarly attitude of a mature Joe Strummer. Even if you weren't familiar with his material, he grabbed you and held you.

Dec. 14 at 7:00, Shibuya Club Quattro. ¥6,000. Creativeman, 03-3499-6669.


The Stylistics

Falsetto memories

Since they formed way back in 1968, it's too much to expect that the four Stylistics who come to Japan every year around Christmas are the original members, but lead singer Russell Thompkins, Jr., is still with us and that's probably enough for most people. His soaring falsetto distinguished the group from their R&B peers in the 70s, including the other Philadelphia acts who recorded for Thom Bell, but Thompkins always defied the gimmick with his emotional readings. And the material was always ace and much more consistent than that of the O'Jays or the Spinners. Miraculously, Thompkins' voice has not changed a whit since then. You don't really get to hear this kind of purity any more. It's what heaven is all about.

Dec. 14 at 9:30, Dec. 15, 21, 11, 25 at 6:30 & 9:30 and Dec. 23 & 24 at 6:00 & 9:00, Billboard Live Tokyo, Roppongi. ¥11,000 & ¥17,000. Box office, 03-3405-1133.


Steve Lukather

And out of it...

As with most rock guitarists his age (born 1957), Steve Lukather is self-taught, though he's always been good about tagging after mentors to get the juiciest tips. Unlike most of his peers, however, he didn't gain experience in a group, but went pretty directly into session work, where he met the Porcaro brothers, Jeff on drums and Steve on keyboards. In their spare time they formed the band Toto, which became a monstrously popular act, though Lukather kept his day gig, since it allowed him to work with people like Boz Scaggs, Alice Cooper, Barbra Streisand, Cher, and even Cheap Trick. Lukather's main claim to immortality, however, was his central role on Michael Jackson's Thriller, which made him perhaps the most in-demand session guitarist of the 80s. And while Toto has remained something of an ongoing thing over the years, Lukather also has a respectable solo touring act, where he shows off his fusion chops.

Dec. 19 & 20 at 6:30 & 9:30, Billboard Live Tokyo, Roppongi. ¥11,000 & ¥12,500. Box office, 03-3405-1133.


Future Islands

Feeling for music

Like many people, I was initially taken aback by Samuel T. Herring's voice: pretentious, stentorian, willfully English-accented (he's from Baltimore). These attributes sell his painfully lovelorn sentiments, but at first they sound out of place in front of a band that should be covering New Order. By the end of their song "Before the Bridge," the combination makes perfect sense. The rippling sense of pop potential in the interaction between Gerrit Welmers' keyboards and William Cashion's guitars push Herring beyond his melancholy self-involvement into a realm that can only be described as pure joy. Herring's stylized roar is the only logical response to this collaborative epiphany, but as it turns out he can also maintain a soulful conversation, as he does on the languorous "The Great Fire," without losing his emotional authority. The guy's real.

Dec. 19 at 7:30, WWW X, Shibuya. ¥6,300. Smash, 03-3444-6751.



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