Shonen Knife @ Maxwell’s

Shonen Knife (Cathy Miller)Just when things were looking pretty bleak—the President speaks, the Pope doesn’t, there’s no place to park in Hoboken—Shonen Knife bounced into town and made everything right with the world.

Not looking or sounding much different from nearly two decades past, this cheery trio performed their musical magic onstage at Maxwell’s. Broken English, Mondrian jumpers and big smiles met pop culture and conjured up some curious Fruit Loop Dreams.

Shortly after midnight, these delicate Japanese flowers, gracious and petite, wound their way through the packed house, hand in hand, and assumed their positions onstage. The crowd cheered loudly. As founding member Naoko Yamano strapped on her peach-colored guitar and greeted everyone, the room erupted with “Domo Arigato.”

Since the departure of original bassist Michie Nakatano, sisters Naoko and Atsuko have held down the fort, enlisting drummer Etsuko Nakanishi, while Atsuko switched to bass (from drums). The revamped line-up worked well. Etsuko is a tiny dynamo on her drum kit, and Atsuko looked comfortable in her role at the front line. Naoko, in her semi-fluent English, did most of the talking.

As one would expect, Shonen Knife were pure, unadulterated fun. Catchy melodies and trademark quirky lyrics rendered a certain childlike vision, not at all pretentious, just simple joy. Naoko introduced most of their songs with a quick preamble, and then sang in a clear voice with a lilting accent.

Shonen Knife have been compared to the Ramones and even Black Sabbath. They’ve got the spunky delivery of classic punk rock, and a knack for tuning it down and throwing heavy metal poses and devil’s horns. Although musical virtuosity is not their forté, their irresistible style is what draws the listener in. Don’t expect to be awestruck by Osakan uber-noodlings; do expect real life Yellow Submarine-style images and sweet-tart power chord songs.

As their hour-long set progressed, there was no lack of audience participation, which Naoko obviously enjoyed, as she wore a perpetual smile. Etsuko, when you could see her bopping behind her drums, would make eye contact with the crowd and grin from ear to ear as well. In a clearly choreographed, yet not objectionable move, Naoko and Atsuko would meet center stage, raising and bowing their guitars in unison, a tongue-in-cheek nod to their global metal brothers.

Vintage Shonen Knife songs like “Flying Jelly Attack,” “Mysterious Drug Store” (which featured nice harmonies), and “ESP,” intermingled with new songs like “Spam” (about spam e-mail) and “Rubberband” (which Naoko explained is a useful item because she “can bind a bag of potato chips” with one). After their final song, they actually exited the stage through the tight crowd, only to be brought back minutes later for an encore—a wonderful cover of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Their new CD is due for release in Japan sometime in June.

Visqueen, a notoriously fun-loving trio from Seattle, preceded Shonen Knife. What an engaging performance! Singer/guitarist Rachel Flotard dazzled with her lively stage presence. As a vocalist, she can grab any note and croon it sweetly or crush it deeply. As a guitarist, the lone guitarist in Visqueen, she did an exemplary job with hooks, dynamics, melodies, the works. Between her onstage musings and playful audience harangues, she spewed forth profanity as naturally as Ozzy with Tourette’s. Rounding out the band were longtime associate Ben Hooker on drums and Ronnie Barnett (from The Muffs) filling in on bass for 2005.

This is a band to watch as they’ve got talent and personality, excellent songwriting ability, and a lot of heart.