Listening to the music of Japanese Breakfast is like a masterclass in how to take the personal and make it universal. Bandleader Michelle Zauner is an expert at drawing inspiration from her life without creating insular art – see her bestselling memoir Crying in H Mart, which resonated with millions of readers worldwide. Her music does the same, as she proved while bringing her full band to the ACL stage, following her solo guest appearance at last year’s ACL Hall of Fame ceremony.
The eight-piece band took the stage to enthusiastic applause, opening with fan-favorite “Paprika,” one of the catchiest of the catchy tunes that adorn the 2022 Grammy-nominated act’s breakthrough third LP Jubilee. A gong decorated with lights became the centerpiece as Zauner thrilled the crowd punctuating the chorus of the banger with each hit. That was followed by the album’s synth-driven, perfectly crafted pop confection “Be Sweet,” which Zauner sang with a big smile. She donned her guitar for “In Heaven,” a melodic rocker from her first album Psychopomp, supported by Adam Schatz’ sensual saxophone and seguing smoothly into “Woman That Loves You,” from the same LP. Zauner admitted that when she appeared at the ACL Hall of Fame last fall to perform in tribute to Wilco, she never imagined she’d be back with her own band so soon. The group then dialed back its normally sunshine-bright sound for Jubilee’s moody midtempo charmer “Kokomo, IN,” driven by Peter Bradley’s slide guitar. Zauner visited JB’s second album Soft Sounds From Another Planet for the nostalgic “Boyish,” which earned cheers the moment it began. The band stuck with that album for the pretty indie rocker “The Body is a Blade,” ending the trip (for now) with the ambiguous, unsettling “Road Head,” which also garnered cheers as soon as the opening chords rang.
Things took a turn back to the upbeat with Jubilee’s “Savage Good Boy,” which ended on harmony guitar riffs from Zauner and Bradley. Drummer Craig Hendrix’s counterpoint vocals and Zauner’s playfully naughty lyrics highlighted Psychopomp’s “Everybody Wants to Love You,” after which Zauner introduced the musicians. The airy, horns-spiked pop of “Slide Tackle” came next, its chorus of “Be good to me/We’ve always had a good time” sung directly to Bradley, who’s also Zauner’s husband. Ironically, that was followed by the romantic yearning of “Posing in Bondage,” which turned from melancholy to joyful by tune’s end. Bradley’s keyboard and Christabel Lin’s violin dominated the dreamy “Glider,” composed for the video game Sable.
Seated at the keyboard, Zauner noted the day was a special one, as it also marked the first anniversary of the 2021 release of Crying in H Mart, her powerful memoir about growing up Korean American and dealing with the grief of losing her mother. She explained the book paved the way for Jubilee, an album about giving yourself permission to welcome joy back into your life after experiencing tragedy. That led to “Tactics,” a song about moving forward from sadness, as difficult as it might be. The band quit the stage, leaving Zauner solo with her guitar for “Posing For Cars,” a song that builds in intensity, a tactic emphasized by the musicians returning one by one, until the whole thing culminated, appropriately, in her epic guitar solo. Japanese Breakfast wasted no time in going into the final song, the widescreen Soft Sounds rocker “Diving Woman,” on which everyone cut loose before Bradley and Zauner brought the song to a ringing, jangling close. It was a great show and a great debut performance, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall as part of our upcoming 48th season on your local PBS station.