Luna Li (Left) & Japanese Breakfast (Right)
Toronto-based indie pop artist Luna Li took on the mighty task of facilitating the crowd’s return to concerts on top of the already difficult role of playing to a talkative crowd of early arrivals who are usually only partially invested in an opening act. When the band came out onto the stage, however, frontwoman Hannah Bussiere led with a smile that not only melted away my anxieties about being in the space, but also won the crowd over.
The four-piece band consisting of guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums opened with “Alone But Not Lonely,” an easygoing jam and a fitting nod to a positive mantra that helped Bussiere through lockdown. Dressed in a cropped, sparkly jacket, chunky black Doc Marten boots, a spiked choker, and a tiara hair tie, Bussiere exuded an easygoing charm that matched the sun-drenched sound palette of Luna Li. Her voice was as smooth, dreamy, and as beautiful in a live setting as it is on recording. While she may have carried herself on stage with a certain degree of nonchalance, she flexed her chops on electric guitar with breakout solos in between verses that signaled she was anything but casual, quickly earning the respect of the crowd, who let out loud, joyful cheers.
Bussiere kept the crowd engaged in between songs with ample thank-you’s for the warm cheers and little stories here and there. Luna Li was not in a rush to slam through song after song, instead giving the crowd time to chill, converse, and share a laugh in between tracks. In one memorable, wholesome moment with the track “Afterglow,” Bussiere brought out a miniature butterfly-shaped guitar and reflected on how she had seen some dad put it up for sale on a Facebook gear group. She almost didn’t buy it, but then decided that she “had to have it.” The guitar was not only the perfect complement to her sparkly jacket, but it was also a fitting symbolic reference to the dreamy yearning for freedom from a relationship in “Afterglow.” As Bussiere went into a pleasantly warm solo on the butterfly-shaped guitar, it was as if she was spreading her wings and floating away.
There was a natural ebb and flow to Luna Li’s set, something akin to the way the last fleeting days of summer are enjoyed, where impulsive desires are chased, and every moment is savored with the understanding that these moments do not last forever. Luna Li’s set was a gentle reminder to ease into this changing of seasons. That to chase too many moments or to be always reaching towards the next best thing would be to miss out on the magic of the present. To slow down is to be more receptive to those quieter moments of joy: a cold, refreshing beer shared with friends at a barbecue, noticing the way sunlight reflects off water during golden hour by the lake.
One track in particular embodied this sentiment. Inviting us to close our eyes and float away with her for a moment, Bussiere used a loop pedal to layer mellow guitar chords, then brought out an acoustic violin to add free-flowing string loops. Over these magical loops, she sang in a dreamy falsetto, as her bass player filled in the lower register and the drummer added timely cymbal rolls. I closed my eyes, letting the sound wash over me, and the body heat accumulating from the strangers surrounding me was sublime, as if savoring the last brilliantly warm rays of the summer heat.
Before going into “Cherry Pit,” the set closer, Bussiere reflected on how grateful she was to be touring with Japanese Breakfast, recalling how she saw the band a few years ago in Toronto and feeling, for the first time, truly represented in the indie scene. Michelle Zauner, the frontwoman of Japanese Breakfast, and Bussiere are both Korean. Earlier in the set, Bussiere performed an upbeat, unreleased collaboration with fellow Asian rocker, Jay Som, and it reminded me that it was not that long ago that Japanese Breakfast and Jay Som were both brought along as openers for Mitski’s iconic 2016 tour. Seeing the cycle of paying it forward, of creating space to support each other in the scene continue with Luna Li now opening for Japanese Breakfast made the pairing feel particularly poignant and special.
“Cherry Pit” brought Luna Li’s set to a close with a bang and Bussiere capped it all off with a final guitar solo, going all in with screeching wails in the upper register to emphatic cheers, headbanging, and even cheers of “Luna! Luna! Luna!” amidst applause. The feeling in the crowd was one of joy and excitement and Luna Li certainly delivered an exhilarating opening set that warmed the crowd up for Japanese Breakfast.
Photo Credit: Tonje Thilesen
The first time I saw Japanese Breakfast was in a 450-capacity concert venue in a small liberal arts college in the middle of Ohio in 2017. Frontwoman Michelle Zauner had made a home in the small D.I.Y. scene. Now I was seeing her in San Francisco at the 2,300-capacity Regency Ballroom, to a sold-out crowd. Her progression feels like a smooth one, and her bright voice and big personality fits the larger venue in a way only a natural performer can pull off.
I’ve sat with Zauner’s music for the past few years, finding solace in the ways she has processed the loss of her mother through music and, most recently, through her memoir, Crying In H Mart. Like Zauner, I moved back home a few years ago to take care of my mom through her battle with cancer. I felt so isolated in my experience, but Zauner’s music as Japanese Breakfast became a refuge, a home. When at last all the lights shut off, and Japanese Breakfast walked out on stage, a wave of emotion overpowered me.
The six-piece band — comprised of drums, bass, saxophone, violin, and Zauner’s husband Peter Bradley on backup guitar and keyboard — emerged with Zauner leading the helm in a speckled, sparkly silver crop top with poofy shoulders and matching pants. She took one final sip from a red solo cup and settled into her place at centerstage. Two bright spotlights shined down on her and the crowd quieted down to a hush, rapt with attention. When the droning synths came in and Zauner began singing “Paprika,” the opening track from her new album Jubilee, the crowd erupted into cheers. She pulled out a hammer, dramatically striking a large gong as the rest of the band joined in and we were off and running.
Japanese Breakfast wasted no time at all, going straight from one song into the next. The setlist was balanced, with many of the songs from Jubilee making their live debut while classic hits from their previous two albums were also thrown into the mix, much to the enjoyment of the crowd. If Luna Li’s set was one of ease and contentment with the ending of summer, then Japanese Breakfast’s was one of maximizing pleasure, of chasing joyful moment after joyful moment. As the crowd got more and more into it, our collective body heat made the venue hot and humid. With the heat, the lights on stage twinkling brilliantly like fireworks, and romantic slow jams like “Kokomo, IN,” it really did feel like the last days of summer were being experienced inside the Regency Ballroom that evening.
Musically, there was a sentimentality that seemed to hang thick in the air as Japanese Breakfast moved through their set. Hearing old favorites like “In Heaven” and “The Woman That Loves You” performed live again with the crowd singing along felt nostalgic. The band fell back into these older songs with a familiarity akin to returning to a childhood home. It seemed like they truly savored being back on stage just as much as the crowd enjoyed getting to see them once again. At one point in the set, Zauner commented on the heat of the concert venue and said it reminded her of “that one Rob Thomas song.” After some awkward laughs, she jokingly introduced the next song by saying, “This next one is for Rob Thomas.”
As Japanese Breakfast went into a dreamy cover of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again,” there was a couple slow dancing in front of me, bathed in the glow of the pink lights shining out from the stage, mirroring Zauner and Bradley, swaying close by to each other on stage, sharing loving nods every so often. The set was full of moments like these: moments of simple joys, moments that stretched on and on, moments shared between audience and band. This gratitude for the shared time together was not lost on Zauner, who graciously exclaimed towards the end of her set, “Thank you for giving us our dream job. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
And just like a dream, the set had reached its end before we knew it, but luckily not before two fitting encore pieces took us home. When Zauner came out alone to perform the first of two encore songs, “Posing For Cars,” she described it as being about “loving someone who loves you very differently from the way that you love them.” It was a slow build, beginning with just Zauner serenading on guitar, then Bradley emerged with an acoustic guitar for a duet moment, and finally the rest of the band joined in for a climactic finish. As if remarking on Japanese Breakfast’s return to touring, Zauner told the crowd, “It’s starting to feel like it’s about you guys and missing you and loving you.”
They closed the set with fan favorite “Diving Woman” from their 2017 album, Soft Sounds from Another Planet. Zauner and Bradley improvised together on electric guitars at center stage for one final, euphoric hurrah.
As the crowd spilled out into the cool evening air, it felt like we had all experienced that last, fulfilling goodbye to summer in the Regency Ballroom, but the coming of fall was a welcome relief from the heat.