Sunday, July 8, 2012

Concert Review: Osaka Monaurail at The Great Hall

Osaka Monaurail & Souljazz Orchestra
The Great Hall
Toronto, ON
July 6 2012

In their first ever North American concert, Japan's "#1 funk orchestra" Osaka Monraurail, wowed a modest crowd friday night at The Great Hall in West Queen West. Put on by World Famous Music, a Canadian promoter known for organizing shows featuring highly talented funk, soul, jazz and electronic artists, the night was an absolute feast for aficionados of international interpretations of funky grooves from the late 1960s and 70s.

Opening for the Japanese funksters was Souljazz Orchestra, easily the most talented afrobeat band to ever emerge from Ottawa, Ontario. Souljazz has gained international recognition for creating catchy, lengthy singles like "Mista President" and "Freedom No Go Die" that are reminicent of the music of Fela Kuti and other popular 1970's West African afrobeat artists. Their live show was almost an exact replica of how I've often imagined afrobeat shows unfolding in a busy Nigerian bar: Intensely sweaty, funky and kind of transcendent, albeit without a bevy of semi-nude Nigerian dancers and the grand political statements that were an integral part of Fela Kuti's shows.

The Great Hall filled up quickly (with mostly Japanese Canadians, ex-pats and funk nerds like myself) as headliners Osaka Monaurail, an eight-piece band uniformly dressed in early 1960's style big-band suit jackets, took the stage, subsequently launching into instantly satisfying, funked out opening workouts of The Temptations "Get Ready" and Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered."  Charismatic frontman Ryo Nakata took the stage in classic band-leader style, almost a full half-hour into Monaurail's set and jumped right into a Maceo Parker-era James Brown flavored jam.

The 39-year-old Nakata attended high school in Alberta and moved back to Japan shortly after, starting the Osaka-based band in 1992. And impressively enough for a Canada-educated Japanese funk musician, his stage presence and vocal twang is eerily similar to Southern soul singers of the late 60s, evoking nostalgic dreams of a time when funk and soul frontmen like James Brown ruled black music in America; when Nakata growls "we'd like to go back to the sixtaaaays", I am placated and content.

The rest of the band can be aptly described as virtuosically talented, even though their sound is wholly limited to funky nostalgia. Drummer Soki Kimura plays with a subtle, yet extremely refined funk technique, employing precise ghost notes in his almost Dennis Chambers-like grooves with a tight swing-jazz touch in his cymbal work. Tenor Saxophonist Shimon Mukai is another standout, sounding like the long-lost Japanese son of Maceo Parker

On the whole, Osaka Monaurail plays with a tightness and a ferocity that pays tribute to James Brown and the subversively-funky past of Motown, Stax and the American South. An indicative moment comes when Nakata begins taunting the band, saying "y'all look like 1986...I want to go back to revolutionary times." Mid-set, Nakata announced that the band was celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, despite having never played a show in the U.S or Canada. Nostalgia for funkier times has always been a good business (especially in Japan), so much so that tight, popular funk bands like Osaka Monaurail consistently guarantee themselves a long musical shelf life. The soul of the Godfather of Soul lives on.

Note: DJ General Eclectic, a member of the well-respected Toronto DJ collective Foot Prints, supplied a welcome serving of rare-soul and funk tunes in between and after sets.

All photos © Corey Caplan