Japanese Breakfast’s joyous show at Union Transfer on Friday was a triumphant homecoming, the first of a five-night run for the Philadelphia band led by Michelle Zauner that vividly demonstrated live music’s spirit-sustaining power at a heightened moment when it’s once again under threat.
The evening was emotionally charged for a number of reasons. It was the first show back at the Spring Garden Street venue since the coronavirus shutdown began.
And the artist and venue have a history: When Zauner was living in Philadelphia after graduating from Bryn Mawr College in 2011, she worked the indie rock venue’s coat check while trying to make it with her band Little Big League.
“It’s so good to be home,” Zauner said early on, center stage in a ruffled white dress in front of her six-piece band before singing the bittersweet “Kokomo, IN” from her new album, Jubilee. “Five [expletive] nights. How did this happen? I don’t know. But thank you so much for giving us this wonderful gift. It’s not lost on me.”
How it happened is that Zauner has been building an intimate relationship with fans since the first Japanese Breakfast album, Psychopomp, in 2016 and its follow-up, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, which came out the following year.
Both of those albums were written in reaction to the death of her mother, Chongmi, in 2014, as was Crying In H Mart, her artful, acutely insightful, best-selling memoir about connecting with her Korean identity through food that she is now adapting into a feature film for Orion Pictures.
Pop stars write songs that make us feel they know us, and we in turn believe we know them. The bond between Zauner and the Philly crowd is deeper than most because she’s been so open about learning to live with the grief that led to the hard-earned optimism of Jubilee.
As she bounded about in thigh-high boots, opening the set with the new album’s ecstatic “Paprika,” Zauner banged on a gong as the band built to a payoff line that expressed how it felt to once again be at a show with such a sense of occasion: “It’s a rush!”
Indeed, it was. But of course, it was also an angst-inducing experience that at once felt reassuringly familiar and uncomfortably uncertain. When this run of Union Transfer shows — which will continue Saturday and Sunday, with Philly punk band Mannequin Pussy opening, and Tuesday and Wednesday with local psych-rockers Spirit Of The Beehive — were announced, they were meant to be post-pandemic celebrations.
With fears about the delta variant and frustration with vaccine resistance, it’s again unclear whether the return to indoor shows in particular will be able to carry on. The U.S. is now averaging 100,000 new COVID-19 infections a day, a level not seen since the winter surge.
This past Monday, Japanese Breakfast pointed to what will hopefully be a safe way forward on their tour by making it mandatory for audience members to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter venues, and to wear a mask when not eating or drinking. By Friday afternoon, dominant promoter Live Nation had changed its policy to accommodate the growing call to have vax-only shows be at the discretion of artists.
At Union Transfer, the newly implemented system worked as orderly as one could hope. Two people checked vaccination cards — or photos of them on phones — in a quick-moving line outside the venue. Owner Sean Agnew said that of the 5,850 tickets sold for the five shows, 160 were refunded due to the vaccine and testing policy. As a result, few tickets remain for Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at uniontransfer.com.
Inside the venue, I took a spot up front, to the far right of the stage. The general admission floor of the room is all-ages, which is an added bonus: Nobody’s drinking, so no one’s sliding off their mask.
Save for one dude who called out to a friend across the room, I didn’t see a single nose or mouth all night. It was the most crowded space I’ve been in in 17 months, but it never felt crushed, even when a mini mosh pit broke out while Mannequin Pussy’s Marisa Dabice led the five-piece band through an alternately dreamy and trashy satisfying 45-minute set.
Back to Japanese Breakfast. Zauner’s rapport with the crowd and growing confidence as a bandleader relaxed the room as the evening went along. The band’s musicality was on display throughout.
Slide guitar licks by Peter Bradley, who is Zauner’s husband, made “Kokomo, IN” stick. “Posing In Bondage” cast a dreamy, trippy spell full of longing. Zauner played piano on Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again.”
She explained that the enticingly melodic “Boyish” was inspired by working at Society Hill restaurant Xochitl, and that as “a true Philadelphian” she wrote “Posing For Cars” about taking mushrooms in the Poconos.
Zauner writes about serious stuff, and you might get the impression that her music is a downer. But her pop sensibility makes sure even songs like “In Hell” — about putting down the family dog — are balanced out with buoyancy and, occasionally, out and out bliss, as on the ebullient “Everybody Wants To Love You.”
Before that song, she handed a piñata to an audience member, and asked them to wait until her guitar solo got so good that the natural reaction would be she “can shred!” She can, and the piñata was smashed, and the song, and the whole show, delivered the release everyone had been waiting for for so long.