Photo courtesy of AzyxA.

HIKKIIIIIIIIIIIII!

On Utada Hikaru‘s last tour, the Utada United 2006 tour in Japan, the average audience size per venue varied from 20,000 to 50,000 attendees nightly. Tonight, the singer responsible for the highest selling album in Japanese history was about to play to a tiny club of about 300 people in Boston, a few of whom only vaguely familiar with the music she was to perform.

When I got to the venue around 5 p.m., there were already about fifty people waiting outside the door. As I later learned, the first people in line had been waiting there since 9:30 that morning. In a split decision for the sake of sustenance, I ducked into (or rather walked into, really…I never have to duck) the Qdoba next door for a chicken burrito, which I feverishly devoured while waiting at the very end of the line. It was perhaps not my most glamorous moment (and also, I suspect, the reason I vaguely smelled of cilantro throughout the night).

The general make-up of the crowd was nothing if not predictable, including nerds, anime lovers, gays, and nerdy anime loving gays. Far and away though, the makeup of the show was largely Japanese. The fact would be later confirmed when Utada prompted the crowd three songs in with “Nihongo no uta?” (basically, “How about a Japanese song?”), which was met with a deafening cry of approval.

After waiting outside for roughly an hour and a half in twenty degree weather, the audience was finally corralled into the Paradise Rock Lounge while being subjected to a fairly rigorous, unusually high security psuedo-strip search and interrogation process. Cameras of any kind were confiscated, and cell phones were required to be off at all times while the show was in session.

While I still don’t understand the logic behind limiting the audience’s interaction with the performance (every other artist I’ve seen on all levels of popularity, from indie to Madonna, seem to do just fine with a few camera phone pictures being taken now and again), I must admit that being forced to concentrate on the show rather than the viewfinder of my camera did enhance the experience. It was, as old people refer to it, the ‘real way’ to experience a concert.

While the crowd began to thaw, DJ Mike Rizzo (who I interviewed for MuuMuse two years ago, hey girl hey!) stepped on stage to warm up the crowd with some of his latest mixes from Ke$ha, Britney and Gaga. Even though I took to dancing and/or weirdly wobbling around on the side of the stage, no one else seemed to join in, even when the DJ spun a mix of Utada’s “Dirty Desire.”

A few minutes after 8 p.m., the band slowly filed out onstage as the sweeping sound of Exodus‘ “Opening” greeted the suddenly dimming lights. To the screeching delight of the crowd, she appeared from backstage, sporting a fierce pair of spiked pumps, pink leggings and an off-the-shoulder velvet lavender top, all complimented with a shock of sexed-up, messed-up bedhead hair. Standing at 5’2″ (sans the stilettos), Utada was a walking sex bomb.

As the singer grabbed hold of the mic, the band started in a rockier, rowdy rendition of the lead track off of her latest album, “On and On.” Almost immediately, you could tell that her voice was in top-notch condition and, if possible, had only grown stronger over time. Whether it was the smaller venue size or simply her own maturation as an artist, there was plenty more control and confidence in the superstar’s voice as evidenced by the many throaty shouts and vocal riffs that would have been all too ambitious for the Utada of yesteryear.

Even though the crowd makeup was mixed (alright, heavily Japanese), Utada managed to create a warm environment by alternating between languages as the show carried on in its unusual English-to-Japanese-and-back-again pace. “Ikimasu,” she said dutifully before sitting down at her keyboard. “That means ‘I’m going’ or ‘I’m about to play,'” she offered to the English-speaking fans before playing the first few chords of “Sakura Drops” on the piano.

The night included a very generous sampling of her English and Japanese discography, as well as a fair share of moments from her past tours including my personal highlight of the night. Halfway though the show, the lights dimmed to a murderous red as Utada launched into the threefold power punch of “Devil Inside,” “Kremlin Dusk,” and “You Make Me Want to Be A Man,” as performed on Utada United 2006. Not more than an arm’s reach away, Utada raged across the stage, howling and yelping during the monumental, explosive breakdown of the final song.

The Japanese songs carried a large degree of nostalgia for myself–and evidently the crowd, as well–as I watched dozens of people shriek with delight each time the opening notes of some of her bestselling classics began to play, including “First Love,” the title track off of her first Japanese album. As soon as the first chords began to pluck at the piano the entire audience all but lost their minds, including both myself and the small Japanese girl next to me, who began spasming, seizing and flailing against the banister in what I could only describe as a sort of J-Pop-induced exorcism. By the end, between Utada’s tender crooning and the crowd’s loud singing, I’ll admit–I got a little teary-eyed watching it all happen in front of me.

As the show came to a close, Utada decided to end (before the encore) with her current single. “This song is on the radio right now, so request it if you like it!” she announced as the band began warming up for “Dirty Desire.” Yet true to her overly self-critical, anti-fame sort of demeanor, she quickly qualified her statement: “But if you don’t like it, please don’t request it.”

It’s no small secret that Utada has always had mixed feelings on her career as a musician. She’s often expressed interest in dabbling in higher studies later in life, as she would later tell us during the concert. Years ago, the singer dropped out of Columbia when her career in Japan was truly blossoming and, as a result, has always wondered about what it would be like to go back.

After regaling the crowd with a story about visiting Boston ten years ago, she returned to her original point, saying to us only half-jokingly that she would return to school “if this whole music thing stops working out.” The crowd booed and she started to giggle, telling us that she liked to study and that she was a “little bit of a nerd.” When she was met with cheers and shouts, Utada began getting excitable. “Yeah! Are there any other nerds out there?” she gleefully asked as more grew louder with approving shrieks. “Books, books, books!” she began to chant suddenly, pumping her fist Jersey Shore-style into the air until eventually forfeiting into an uncontrolled fit of giggles. Such a dork.

Photo courtesy of AzyxA.

Aesthetically speaking, it was easy to see why the In the Flesh Tour was chosen as the name of this showcase. The show was perhaps the most stripped-down show I’ve ever attended as far as production is concerned. Aside from two small picture projections on either side of the stage displaying the CD cover of the song being played, there was next to nothing visually carrying the show aside from the singer herself.

The In The Flesh Tour was far greater than anything I could have dreamed for in a concert experience, as obvious or cliched as it may sound. With no grand theatrics or onstage scenery to veil any technical or musical shortcomings, this was the most raw, intimate showcase I’d ever witnessed from an artist (let alone one of such superstar proportions), and probably one of my greatest concert experiences thus far. More than anything, it was the kind of show that I imagine Utada has always intended to perform; one without much fuss or frivolous distractions, which made the results nothing less than gold.

I may never be able to see Utada Hikaru live again (at least not on this hemisphere), but unlike the audience members attending her stadium-sized full capacity venues in Japan, I was no more than ten feet away from one of my most personally influential and inspiring musical idols in the flesh for the entire night. That is something I’ll never forget.

Setlist, courtesy of Utada-Net.
Opening
On and On
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – FYI
Poppin’
This One (Crying like a Child)
Passion / Sanctuary
Sakura Drops
Stay Gold
Devil Inside
Kremlin Dusk
You Make Me Want to Be a Man
The Bitter End (Placebo cover)
Apple and Cinnamon
Boku wa Kuma
Come Back To Me
First Love
Can You Keep A Secret?
Automatic
Dirty Desire
Encore:
Simple and Clean
Me Muero