Out of Sight, But Not Out of Mind: Ichiko Aoba in Concert at the Crystal Ballroom

I witnessed a fantastic performance by Ichiko Aoba on Oct. 25, even though I couldn’t actually see it

Nic Smith, Contributing Writer

On Oct. 25, I was anxious. I was filled with nervous anticipation of a crowd, packed like sardines, staring at a stage, experiencing the intimate magic of a performer together. Pre-concert anxiety is real, but as I walked into the Crystal Ballroom in Somerville, Mass. at 7:30 p.m., just imagining Ichiko Aoba’s entrancing music live flooding my ears, was enough to make my nerves melt away.

I knew a lot about Ichiko before attending the concert. The singer-songwriter from Japan mainly played guitar but was known to also play piano, clarinet, flute, and accordion. However, I knew next to nothing about the opener, Charlie Martin. He walked onto the stage with his guitar, played a few of his songs, then introduced himself. I learned that he’s also a singer-songwriter like Ichiko, but from Texas.

I honestly wasn’t a huge fan of his musical content – the chords and lyrics were simple and predictable, and the performance wasn’t too engaging – but I enjoyed his infectious personality. As he spoke about his career and his ongoing tour with Ichiko that was soon to end, he made the audience laugh, smile, and cheer multiple times – myself included. That alone made me reconsider my position on his musical talent, and I realized that he has heaps of potential. For example, Charlie’s vocals were highly reminiscent of Robin Pecknold, lead singer of the popular folk band Fleet Foxes, and were easily the highlight of his set.

After checking out his music on Spotify, I don’t think his live performance did his music justice. The acoustic versions of his songs stole individuality and character from his music. If he had brought his band along like he jokingly told us he might do next time he tours; the opening section of the concert would have certainly been more memorable and entertaining.

As the crowd excitedly awaited the next act, I tuned into the bebop song the venue was playing: “Black Orpheus.” Classy – not only the cool jazz but the glass chandeliers and the lit-up bar behind us. Other than that, the venue was pretty plain, even the stage. For both sets, minimal orange flame-shaped lighting was used, which went along well with the simplistic feel of the performances.

When Ichiko came out for her set, however, I and other audience members under 5’10” soon realized a big issue with the Crystal Ballroom: the height of the stage. The venue was a standing area, with a small pit directly in front of the stage and a flat standing area behind the pit. The stage is directly level with the rear standing area, which combined with my height (I’m not tall) and Ichiko Aoba’s choice to perform sitting led to me and several others having little to no sight of Ichiko for the entire hour-long set. This was incredibly disappointing, as the point of seeing artists live is to not only hear them but see them and how they create their art. I mostly blame the venue for this problem. I much prefer venues with pits or tiered standing areas, and I’ve never had this issue before with concert sites that employ those designs. I do want to point out, though, that the Crystal Ballroom is wheelchair accessible, which is an important feature that other places often leave out.

Without sight of the main act (unless standing on my tiptoes or jumping), I was left to observe the auditory elements more closely, and how fascinating Ichiko’s performance sounded almost made up for me not knowing how it looked. She set the mood with “Kokoro No Sekai,” and subsequently began playing songs from her recent album, “Windswept Adan.” Since many of the recorded tracks from that album contain orchestral arrangements with strings, clarinet, and flute, I was curious to see how Ichiko would adapt these songs to her exclusively guitar and vocal set. She ended up playing stunning stripped-back versions of songs such as “Porcelain” and “Dawn in the Adan,” which were interesting to hear reimagined. 

Ichiko also performed songs that were originally recorded as just guitar and vocals, with minimal changes besides the occasional transposition to a different key. Songs that especially shined included “Sagu Palm’s Song,” “Chi No Kaze” (which was so amazing, it put tears in my eyes), and “Kikaijikake no Uchuu,” a 12-minute masterpiece with multiple sections that was played without a single flaw – definitely the most impressive part of her performance, showing her exceptional musicianship and endurance. Her guitar playing was great as always, but the best evaluation of her vocals came from a girl standing next to me, who said to her friend, “Damn. She sounds the same as her recordings – perfect.” Additionally, Ichiko played keyboard instead of guitar for a couple of songs, including a cover of Charlie Martin’s song, “Daisy,” in which Charlie played guitar and sang a duet with her.

Not only did Ichiko’s performance show how outstanding of a musician she is, but it also showed how authentic and pure her personality is. Between each song, she’d shyly talk to the crowd, saying things like “Yo,” “Arigato,” or announcing a song title. She’d also make little noises after each song: humming, whispers, even a small attempt at beatboxing at one point. The audience didn’t find this awkward or strange, and everyone laughed along with her entertaining vocal quirks. She even agreed to an encore when the audience wouldn’t stop applauding after the bouncy, fun closer, “Taiyou-san,” although when she came back out she stated plainly to the audience, “Short song.”

Overall, the concert had its flaws, but there was a lot to love about the venue and performers. Even if I can’t comment on how the performance looked, the sound left me feeling utterly relaxed, like Ichiko Aoba had lured me to sleep with her enchanting performance. I left the Crystal Ballroom feeling refreshed and calm- very much unlike my anxious state of mind when I had entered it three hours prior.