Utada @ The Fillmore at Irving Plaza

NEW YORK, NY—The name Utada doesn’t ring a bell in the United States, and the Japanese-American singer’s two English-language albums have sold just a few thousand copies each in North America. Yet both albums were big hits in Japan, where Utada is a multi-million selling singer-songwriter, stadium-size star and one of the most recognizable names in J-pop of the last decade.

Utada’s first-ever U.S. tour, “In The Flesh,” was promoting her second American album, This Is The One (Island Def Jam, 2009), an R&B disc geared vaguely toward a general audience. The venues were all modestly sized, and the Fillmore show sold out by word of mouth. Yet it’s doubtful many—if any—of the attendees got hooked on Utada through her English albums. Most were fans of her J-pop first and foremost. They were people like Kristine Sanchez, who first heard Utada‘s songs in the Kingdom Hearts video games and then researched her online. Although she was a fan of her Japanese music first, Sanchez went to the show to support Utada as an American artist.

Though she was born in New York, Utada split her childhood between Japan and America. Her parents were famous musicians, and she soon followed their lead by debuting as an R&B artist in Japan. She released her first single, “Automatic,” in 1998, when she was just 15. Her freshman album, First Love, is the country’s best-selling compact disc. Despite the risk of becoming a short-lived teen wonder, she remained wildly popular and respected because of her willingness to experiment with electronic textures and choice to keep a low-profile image.

“I love her,” says Mayumi Iwao, a New York-based reporter. She’s followed Utada since her debut and admires her sense of language. Although several Japanese fans did travel overseas for “In the Flesh,” Iwao’s friends from Japan couldn’t make it and were jealous that she was seeing Utada in a small venue.

Utada first tried to break the American market with Exodus in 2004, but her English material has been inferior thus far. Her Japanese music sounds lush and poetic by pop standards, but her U.S. albums are under-produced and riddled with embarrassing, posturing lyrics (“I was dancing with a dirty blond Texan/Charming accent but the music’s playing too loud for talking/So I showed him how people in the Far East get down”). Moreover, the little promotion it’s received has been for a mainstream audience, not the people actually buying the CDs.

“I feel insulted that they don’t cater to us—they cater to a general, nameless people,” says Chris Harris, a fan who had waited in line since 2 a.m.

The Fillmore audience’s love was so intense you could feel it in the air, but “In the Flesh” had too many problems to live up to expectations. The concert felt half-baked, lacking even a merchandise table selling CDs. The setlist—which included English songs, Japanese hits and a throwaway cover of Placebo’s “The Bitter End”—lacked cohesion and direction. It was unclear what Utada wanted to accomplish with “In The Flesh.” Build her name as an American singer with mainstream viability? Give stateside fans a jukebox J-pop performance? Ultimately, it didn’t triumph as either.

Utada also seemed unsure how to handle a smaller concert. She retained the animatronic stage presence of her stadium performances, which is passable when it’s buttressed by pop spectacle but came off disconnected in a venue that demanded intimacy. She responded to audience shout-outs nervously, half-jokingly telling a boisterous fan to “stop talking.” During her MCs, she rambled about having nothing to say, expressed surprised at seeing racially diverse audiences on previous tour stops and compared her New York City turnout to a Whole Foods supermarket, sending them into uncomfortable laughter.

Utada has dismissed Exodus as a misstep, so only four songs made it to “In The Flesh.” While most songs were played closely to the album versions, others were revamped. Club tune, “Devil Inside,” began quietly and swelled dramatically.

But the mixes were plain awful. The drums and prerecorded background vocals were too loud, giving the concert a karaoke feel. During “You Make Me Want To Be A Man,” they drowned out the singer herself.

Though Utada has pitch and breathing difficulties, she sounded fairly good on Feb. 8. (The prerecorded vocals probably helped.) She was at her best when she sat at a keyboard and played Japanese songs, taking a singer-songwriter pose that suited her.

Utada seemed liveliest and happiest singing “Automatic” toward the end of the night. Prancing onstage with warmth and a wide smile on her face, she achieved the enthusiasm and emotional connection the concert sorely needed. At that moment, “In The Flesh” became what it should have been all along: a treat for American fans who had been dying to see the J-pop singer live.