Cibo Matto @ Japan Society Theater

NEW YORK, NY—Cibo Matto’s back for the first time in a decade, and they’re seemingly making up for lost time. Since reuniting last spring, the trip-hop duo of Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda have participated in three charity concerts from March to June, toured the country in July, and worked on a new album due next year. On Oct. 20, they took the stage again, this time performing at the Japan Society’s theater in a sold-out show that emphasized the intellectual aspects of their music.

The nonprofit, cultural communication center, Japan Society, hosted the “J-Music Ride” as part of its fall performing arts lineup. The event paired Cibo Matto with Yu Sakai, an R&B singer from Tokyo, exploring the connections between a Japan-based soloist and a duo of expatriates known for their multicultural sound and food-centric lyrics.

The most striking connection between the two acts was their love for samples and loops, although their mannerisms were oceans apart. Cibo Matto keyboardist Honda keeps her work mysterious, possessing a calm and reserved demeanor onstage even as she manipulates samples like the virtuoso she is. Sakai exhibited his process, recording beats and backing vocals live, piece by piece, for covers of Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You” and Sade’s “Kiss of Life.”

I decided to go in cold for Sakai, and was pleasantly surprised from the first few notes he sang of his first song, a cover of Kyu Sakamoto’s “Ue wo Muite Arukou,” better known in America as “Sukiyaki.” He sang well, moving from smooth, rich falsetto to coarser tones quickly and fluidly. He was also funny—at one point sliding his hand across the keyboard while he drank water—and passionate about Japan, reassuring the audience that it was safe to visit his home country. (“The food’s good. The air’s good. I’m good.”) The original music he performed, mostly piano-driven J-pop ballads, wasn’t my cup of tea, but the audience loved it so much that they called Sakai out for an encore. Since he had none scheduled, he came back onstage simply to say he wanted to see Cibo Matto.

Cibo Matto performed nearly the same setlist as in their summer tour shows, with the exception of “Apple” and “Águas de Março” substituting for “Sci-Fi Wasabi.” However, the theater setting allowed the audience to appreciate these songs in a different manner. When I saw Cibo Matto at the Bowery Ballroom in July, the concert felt like a part celebrating the band’s comeback. Sean Lennon joined Hatori and Honda onstage and reminisced about performing and touring with them in the ‘90s, and audience members, several clad in old Cibo Matto gear, sang, danced and cheered enthusiastically. This time, the audience was relatively quiet, instead taking in the dreaminess and complexity of songs like “Apple” and “Sugar Water.”

Not that a sedate atmosphere wasn’t sometimes at odds with the music. Cibo Matto is a great live band in part because of their irresistibly danceable bossa nova beats and quirky shout-along choruses like “Who cares?/ I don’t care!/ A horse’s ass is better than yours!” Hatori seemed uneasy. “You’re so quiet,” she said. “It’s okay to make noise!” For “Birthday Cake,” she prompted the audience to stand up and sing along.

Hatori and Honda, as always, were witty and topical in their onstage banter. Hatori brought up the exotic animals that had been set free by a farm owner in Ohio, explaining that she’d read authorities were capturing loose monkeys that day. She then suggested Apple should consider her idea of naming their next operating system “Monkey” since they do not have Steve Jobs anymore. “And now they have Miho,” Honda chimed in, looking fondly at her bandmate.

The setlist included the two new songs previewed on the summer tour, “Check In” and “Tenth Floor Ghost Girl.” These tunes are different from classic Cibo Matto, especially in what I could make out of their lyrical content, but they’re appealing and fresh. I particularly enjoy “Tenth Floor Ghost Girl” for its triple layers of percussion and mix of singing and rapping in its chorus.

Hatori and Honda performed the first few songs alone, until a full band joined in the middle of “Spoon.” The band helped make “Blue Train,” with its hypnotic verses and crashing choruses, the climax of the night.

Cibo Matto closed their show with their cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Águas de Março,” joined by Jared Geller on vocals. Hatori and Geller interacted well and nearly had each other laughing mid-song, ending the night on a loose and spontaneous feel. It left me wanting more Cibo Matto, but at this pace, I’m sure to have many more chances to see them.