Japanese Breakfast
Photo: Michael Bialas

Japanese Breakfast Offer Michelle Zauner’s Sweet Musical Treats on Live Show Menu

Concertgoers are eagerly flocking to venues like Denver’s Ogden Theatre to see and hear what Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner has to offer during her Jubilee celebration.

If there were any doubts that live music was back in the swing of things, Japanese Breakfast erased them all with a bravura performance at the Ogden Theatre in Denver on 8 October. The act essentially serves as a stage name and creative tool for Korean-American indie-rock/pop singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner, who’s on her way to establishing the artistic integrity of indie experimental wizards like Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O and St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. (Her PopMatters interview was published in June.) 

At times quirky-cool visionary or girl-next-door friendly, the Seoul-born 32-year-old led a celebration of love and gratitude into the 1,500-capacity, nearly sold-out venue with a five-piece backing band whose dynamic display made the ugly Year of the Pandemic a distant memory. Well, almost. Not only was proof of vaccination required for entry into the Ogden, but signs also were posted throughout the venue — and at the front of the stage — stating: “JAPANESE BREAKFAST KINDLY REQUESTS THAT YOU WEAR A MASK DURING THE SHOW.” 

The majority of the spectators, from those leaning up against the photo pit barrier to others standing in the back by the bars, seemed happy to comply, though a few security guards watching the first few rows were figuratively twisting some arms by handing out masks to anyone who didn’t get the memo. 

No contention seemed to exist this night, though. Having been to the Ogden many times (the most recent for Jenny Lewis on 16 May 2019), I can’t remember a crowd filling up the standing-room-only section on the ground floor as quickly as it did shortly after doors opened at 8:00 pm Denver shouldn’t be starved for entertainment, though, since live shows have been a regular part of the social scene since early spring. But seeing inside the Ogden for the first time in 17 months was a welcome sight, looking somewhat spruced up while the marquee outside still seems a little worse for wear. 

Michelle Zauner
Photo: Michael Bialas

Opening act Luna Li (aka lively multi-instrumentalist Hannah Kim, with her three-piece band) might have been partly responsible for the early rush on a party-going Friday night. Her brisk 45 minutes of unencumbered glee certainly set the stage for Japanese Breakfast. 

“Just before we start, I’d like to ask everybody to please mask up,” the Toronto native said in her Denver debut during the band’s first US tour. … We have been very lucky so far. …  Everyone’s been healthy and safe, and we want to keep it that way. So please mask up, even if you’re vaccinated, and let’s go!”

Presenting songs such as “Alone But Not Lonely”, which she has said was written in her first apartment — infested by cockroaches —to cheer myself up and entertain my newfound insect friends,” Luna Li displayed instrumental versatility on electric guitars (including the body of one looking like a butterfly) and violin (with a riveting track from her jams EP). The classically trained artist sounded grateful for the supporting gig that ended for her on 16 October in Brooklyn. “Getting a call to be on this tour was absolutely insane. And I still can’t believe it,” she offered near the end of an eclectic set that included “Flowers (In Full Bloom)”, “Trying”, “Cherry Pit” and her unreleased collaboration with Jay Som. 

The mostly masked crowd remained calm while hearing mellow tunes (the Carpenters’ “Rainy Days and Mondays”, Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out”) purring from the sound system before ecstatically rejoicing the arrival of Japanese Breakfast shortly after 10 p.m. Though there were few visual surprises during the 75-minute set, the businesslike approach and multifaceted musicality of gifted bandmates Peter Bradley (guitar, keys), Craig Hendrix (drums), Deven Craige (bass), Adam Schatz (sax, keys), and Molly Germer (violin, keys) provided a solid backdrop, giving Zauner plenty of room to roam. 

Performing eight of the 10 tracks from her band’s most recent full-length album, June’s stunning and mostly joyful Jubilee, Zauner took the show in a direction much like the record. Coming onstage to the sounds of chiming church bells, Japanese Breakfast opened with Jubilee’s first two songs. The festive “Paprika” was bolstered by Zauner’s several energetic attempts to bang the huge gong — loudly — to her left. “Be Sweet” broke out into a crowd singalong with a beat and guitar rhythm reminiscent of ‘80s era Duran Duran and David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”. Two songs later, the stylish Zauner, wearing a lovely neck-to-toes dress covered with a stitched flower design, finally addressed the crowd. 

“Denver, how are you? It’s great to be back. It’s so wonderful to be back!” the artist who dares to be different proclaimed to the cheering throng. “All of us have been out of work for almost two years and we are so, so grateful to you for being here, and we have a job again and can be of use. We’ve been on tour for five weeks on a six-week-long run. … And I am so grateful to you all for working together with us as we try to figure out our new reality and wearing masks and keeping each other safe. We really, really appreciate it.”

On an album filled with pretty melodies and earthy, ethereal lyrics, a few of Jubilee’s more theatrical flourishes were missing onstage (some for the better, like the chipmunk-sounding harmonies that open “Savage Good Boy”). Yet any deficiencies were replaced by Zauner’s childlike skips, hops, and prances across the stage. There also was enchanting interaction with bandmates, particularly Bradley, the outstanding guitarist whom she married in 2014 shortly before her mother died, and drummer Hendrix, her duet partner on “Ballad 0”. The latter was the first of a few treats that displayed the multimedia maven’s ability to color outside the fine lines of her leading lady role with Japanese Breakfast. 

That song from Bumper, her four-track quarantine EP project with Crying’s Ryan Galloway, has been described (jokingly?) by Zauner on Twitter as “a murder ballad,” which may be close to the truth since she knows all about exploring the dark side. In April, Crying In H Mart, her memoir that covers aspects of her life from growing up in Eugene, Oregon, to making an East Coast move, where she attended Bryn Mawr College, was published and is set to be a film adaptation by Orion Pictures.

Japanese Breakfast
Photo: Michael Bialas

The book that made The New York Times‘ bestseller list also focuses on a sometimes-difficult relationship with her mother, whose fall 2014 death happened a few months after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer the previous spring. 

Having dealt with pain and suffering on 2016’s Psychopomp, Japanese Breakfast’s studio album debut, Zauner dared to go there at the Ogden with “In Heaven”. 

How do you believe in heaven / Like you believe in me? /
Oh, it could be such heaven / If you believed it was real

Lyrics from Michelle Zauner’s “In Heaven” 

A piano-playing Zauner lightened the mood with a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” before slowing it down a bit with two songs from 2017’s sophomore album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet (“Boyish”, which the former creative writing student first recorded while fronting Philadelphia-based Little Big League, and “The Body Is a Blade”).

Then she began building the momentum with three more Jubilee numbers (including a synth-heavy “Posing in Bondage”), along with 2018’s “Glider”, from her latest project. Zauner’s announcement that Japanese Breakfast’s original 32-track soundtrack for the video game Sable had recently been released (24 September by Sony Music Masterworks) drew some of the loudest cheers of the night before the furious finish. 

If a single song can be reason enough to buy Jubilee and see Japanese Breakfast in concert, though, it’s “Posing for Cars”. The six-and-a-half-minute album closer begins sweetly and quietly before erupting into Zauner’s phenomenal exhibition of pedal-to-the-metal, heighten-the-senses shredding that will blow your mind — if not puncture your eardrums. 

In her track-by-track description for Apple Music, Zauner explains that she was reminded of Wilco’s serene-starting “At Least That’s What You Said” in building “an understated acoustic guitar ballad” into an electrifyingly “long guitar solo.” And “Posing for Cars” allowed her “to show off a little bit” and much more during the first encore. Preceding the song’s manic manipulations into uninhibited psychedelia while hunched over her white Fender Jazzmaster, she used the instrument to produce a deep, full tone. That produced an emotional feeling I haven’t experienced since hearing Derek and the Dominos-era Eric Clapton or Mark Knopfler’s “Going Home” instrumental from the Local Hero soundtrack. 

“To me, it always has felt like Jeff Tweedy is saying everything that can’t be said in that moment through his instrument, and I loved that idea,” Zauner added about the Wilco song in her comments for Apple. “I wanted to challenge myself to do the same — to write a long, sprawling, emotional solo where I expressed everything that couldn’t be said with words.”

If a picture is worth a thousand words, just imagine how much value a few fierce guitar riffs among 18 tunes in a show (including two encores) will bring. As their US tour continues through mid-November before resuming with European dates in March, Zauner’s Japanese Breakfast should have a few more things to say. It’s not too late to discover how priceless they can be. 

Japanese Breakfast
Photo: Michael Bialas

Japanese Breakfast Setlist
Ogden Theatre, 8 October 2021

1. Paprika 
2. Be Sweet 
3. In Heaven 
4. The Woman That Loves You 
5. Kokomo, IN 
6. Ballad 0 
7. Savage Good Boy 
8. Road Head 
9. Here You Come Again 
10. Boyish 
11. The Body Is a Blade 
12. Tactics 
13. Glider
14. Posing in Bondage 
15. Slide Tackle 
16. Everybody Wants to Love You 

Encore

1. Posing for Cars  
2. Diving Woman

Japanese Breakfast
Photo: Michael Bialas
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