Show Review: Kikagaku Moyo at Hotel Vegas

by Zev Powell

Kikagaku Moyo Hotel Vegas Jaime Z

Poster by Jaime Z.

I’ve always associated Hotel Vegas with the iconic cactus-scape backdrop that hangs behind the stage. There’s no way that anyone in the past few years has been through without noticing it. The magenta hues are a hypnotic vignette that separates the elevated stage from the rest of the turbid bar environment. It’s a spectacle. I recently engaged in a conversation with someone who said that it used to be dolphins, or the Dalai Lama, or something? I had brought up the topic because I was very upset that the cactuses had disappeared suddenly. He reassured me that they weren’t retired, just out on loan for a movie filming—I was standing there looking at the glittery gold streamers that took its place, wondering why movie filming has to take so long.

I associate Hotel Vegas with its faithful regulars and accessible community. It’s the backyard of the South and people move through the space between the venue and the picnic tables fluidly and socially. Although Vegas represents a niche taste in music it avoids cordoning off visitors and passers by. The stage noise floods East 6th street. Sometimes weeks go by when you won’t see an atypical act come through. But when it does happen, the same space supports a whole other level of attention and capacity. Tuesday’s Hidden Ritual LP release was just that sort of occasion, and the headliner Kikagaku Moyo, of Japan, was the big name that ushered in a vibrant weeknight crowd.

Before I even launch into the music, it’s important to note how lucky the crowd was that Tuesday night was not a glittery gold streamer night. It was a mixed media light show mastered by Fez Moreno of Ether Wave Projections. It’s not fair to talk about any individual band without mentioning how successfully Fez crafted visual leitmotifs throughout the sets. Despite the fact that different bands were occupying the stage, the wall projections offered an atomically crafted cohesion. The audience area of Hotel Vegas is very shallow, and so Fez was squeezed up against the back wall as if in the penalty box of a hockey arena, tinkering away like a wizard. For more on that show in Vegas, check here and be sure to pay attention to his work as he is a spark in the theater scene at the moment

Fez is studied in film, so when you ask him his style he can point you towards every school of every era that he captures. He elaborates, “I like to mix the SF vibe (overheads and color wheels) with the Andy Warhol vibe (slides, movies, flashing lights) and the UK vibe (high powered slide projectors that do heat slides and splodascopes). I like to mix that with 80’s and 90’s video art.” I ran to him after the first set and hastily asked him what that clip was he used at the beginning of the last song. It was Fehérlofia, an obscure 1981 Hungarian animation that pulls in ancient Hunnic creation stories. To the audience it was a trippy moment of graphic art. To Fez it was a measured moment to share his storied dedication.

Kikagaku Moyo had me unavoidably thinking about Japan on the night. Surprisingly it was the two Texas bands that triggered closed eye visions of my favorite Japanese TV show before Kikagaku took to the stage. Cowboy Bebop is one of the most popularized cult anime classics that has found success in America. Japanese anime often attaches its own recognizable cultural styles to American emblems. In the case of Cowboy Bebop, it’s the spaghetti western. Quentin Tarantino nails it in Kill Bill, but the focus is on Uma Thurman’s vengeance. It doesn’t leave space for imagination in the way science fiction can. Spike, the sparsely scripted intergalactic bounty-hunting protagonist, lets you insert your own personality into his sly mischievousness a la Clint Eastwood. Whether there is a beautiful dame or just a hairy dude kicking it in a sublime landscape, there’s nothing more lonely and romantic.

RF Shannon opened the night with a lap steel guitar lunar sound. The down tempo rambling, yet concise, songs make you feel like it’s a slow burning western. There’s no civilization and no bad guy around for miles and miles. Shannon won’t let you die in a shoot out. You have to wait for the long haul shrivel-and-die mirage. Leader vocalist and guitarist Shane Renfro tags the project on Bandcamp as “deconstructed southwest r&b.” RF Shannon takes two Texas steps outside of a wilting skeleton. I almost spilled my beer at least two times from stumbling in and out of a daze. I was mostly sober at that hour, I swear.

Hidden Rituals were celebrating the release of Always, their new LP. By listening to their recordings you can tell their post-punk is a step up in energy level from RF Shannon. There’s something essential to their live performance that exhibits why they sound programmed to kill: The drummer plays the bass drum with his hand. No feet involved. When something is available to you it’s hard not to explore it. Without all of his appendages at work he bravely commits himself to a linear sound that he can’t break. The raw pulse sits you in the cockpit of a brainwashed TIE fighter. The bongo march is martial order and the overall effect is that of a manic twitchiness to comb the desert. I thought I was looking at one of those frantic time lapses of a bustling Tokyo intersection. And the tremelo reverb of the guitar and keys sat me right back in the saddle on the title track “Always.” Singer and lead guitar Jaime Zuverza bashfully promoted the release, “You could buy three shots of the best liquor ever. Or buy our record.”

It snows in Japan. For most it is an afterthought of the immense metropolises. I’ve heard skiers say the snow falls differently, daintily blanketing the leavened mountains. In the temperate forests below forage the native Sika Deer with antlers more geometrically impressive than our elk. Get the point? Kikagaku Moyo takes me to a mythical elven bastion, particularly during the song “Kogarashi.” The dusty themes familiar to Austin psych rock are replaced by old British Isles folk tunes. I am moved towards an ambient instrumental Fairport Convention. Ryu Kurosawa’s sitar rounds the diverse circle.

I tried really hard in this article to apply Cowboy Bebop to RF Shannon and Hidden Rituals in order to differentiate Kikagaku Moyo. I failed to mention that Cowboy Bebop is genius because it layers a third cross-cultural theme. Not only does it fuse anime with westerns, it creates an eclectic love triangle with bebop music, hence the juxtaposition in the name. As soon as the Kikagaku bass lines got groovier my visions returned to Spike’s spaceship chase scenes. Japanese came to love café jazz when afro-bop was ferried across the Pacific by American colonized Filipinos. But there isn’t an ounce of it that feels appropriated in any way. They’ve been doing it for a century now.  As Miles Davis once said, “I don’t care if a dude is purple with green breath, as long as he can swing.” And so Hotel Vegas did swing and rock on Tuesday night. I’m still anxious about the Cactus backdrop.

See you around town Space Cowboys! If you notice me wearing my Mets track jacket come say ‘hi.’

Zev Powell is a creative problem scientist. To find out more about him, check out his website.