Published Nov 02, 2010
Mapping out the career of Ryuichi Sakamoto is no easy feat. Over the course of more than 80 albums and 33 years, the Japanese native has scored Oricon-charting hits with pioneering '80s electro-pop unit Yellow Magic Orchestra, penned award-winning soundtracks (The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky), launched a successful career as a solo pianist, and made some of the most beautiful/out-there electronic recordings of the last decade. And then there are the collaborators – Iggy Pop, David Byrne, Brian Wilson, Robbie Robertson, David Sylvian, Christian Fennesz, Alva Noto – and parallel careers in acting, environmental activism and the record label business.
For Sakamoto's sold-out Vancouver show, however, the 58-year-old put attention squarely on his new double album, Playing the Piano/Out of Noise. With the former consisting of solo piano renditions of some of Sakamoto's best-known work, the strikingly grey-haired performer began his set with the more experimental, noise-laced sounds of the latter, taking the stage in total darkness before pulling, stretching and manipulating the inner workings of a grand piano to form "Glaciers." As icy, snow-filled visuals projected behind the stage's sole instrument and player, the sound of water ran throughout the theatre, with Sakamoto's graceful piano lines soon tumbling over the slow-moving strings, field recordings and ambient electronics during a handful of Out of Noise tracks.
But while the night's opening portion was better suited for a forward-thinking art house than a plush high-end theatre, the following Playing the Piano section had all the makings of a black-tie affair. Strangely enough, this more "traditional" part of the concert was also the most difficult, as classical-oriented songs such as "A Flower Is Not a Flower" and "The Sheltering Sky" gave this part of the evening a deathly serious and often ominous tone.
It wasn't until Sakamoto delivered a dazzling, self-duet rendition of the YMO hit "Behind the Mask" that the concert once again shifted gears, this time with bouncing and downright cheery songs like "Tibetan Dance" and "Thousand Knives" being played by an almost smiling Sakamoto. They served as a stellar reminder that, despite all the high concepts and experimentation, at heart, Sakamoto has always been a man of melody, a point further driven home by the encore "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence." Becoming the night's highlight, the song's brutally simple yet heart-tugging melody was rightfully met with a standing ovation, serving as a stellar reminder of just why Sakamoto is a cultural icon far out east.