CONCERT REVIEW: Little Dragon and Kokayi, State Theater, VA

Little Dragon at Liv. Photo by Tashir Lee.

So I’m sitting at the bar at State Theater, eating my Pigwich, which is a hickory smoked bbq pulled pork sandwich topped with apple fennel walnut slaw (sounds yummy, right?), when all of a sudden, a band starts rockin’ out during sound check. I get up to see what’s going on, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t D.C.’s own Kokayi straight KILLIN’ it with a punk rock sampling.  I was pleasantly surprised and I knew that I was gonna become a fan that night.

The band cranks, but it is Kokayi’s larger-than-life stage presence and charismatic personality that pulls it all together. He reminds me of the song “Rock This Way” by Run DMC and Aerosmith, because he is like both of those artists in one! One minute, he’s spitting top-notch ryhmes so fast that you are left dizzy trying to figure out what you just heard. The next minute, he’s showing his sensitive side by singing heartfelt lyrics beautifully. After that, he’s got the sing/rap hybrid growl on full blast over a punk rock beat mixed in with some heavy record-scratching. And you know what? It all works! With his latest album, Robots and Dinosaurs, Kokayi proves that you can be a multi-faceted hip-hop artist without disrespecting or watering down the genre. He actually elevates hip-hop to new heights and broadens our expectations of what hip-hop can and should be right now.

After Kokayi’s set, we were all waiting for Little Dragon.  As I waited, I recalled their sound check, with Yukimi Nagano’s vocals filling the empty space with vibrato-filled  “oohs” and “ohs” that gave me goosebumps and enveloped me with the vesperal spirit of soulful synth-pop.  The shock of blue lights brought me back to the present, and I was prepared to receive the quirky mysticism that I was sure would fill the entire venue.

Little Dragon did not disappoint.  The Swedish band opened their set with the gut-wrenchingly beautiful ballad “Twice,” off their self-titled debut album, and before Yukimi even opened her mouth to sing, there’s a buzz going around the whole theater:  “Oh my God, are those her nails?” and “Wow, how’d she get light to come out of her nails?” were just a couple of the comments I kept hearing.  Indeed, her nails were painted a deep fluorescent pink that added a great effect throughout the entire show.  The lights continued to flash pink, purple, and blue as we were transported to Little Dragonland.

The tight-knit band appeared to be quite at home, as if performing in a basement full of house party guests.  I couldn’t help but notice the subtle sexiness that Yukimi exudes.  As she kept our attention by beating her tambourine racket (imagine a miniature tennis racket w/ cymbals all around it), she’d  throw in little hip-swivels here and there, dancing to make the rain come down to wash away all the human steam that had been created.  Her bandmates (Fredrik on bass, Erik on drums, and Håkan on synths/programming) were relentless in crafting a constant flow of bass that rattled throughout my entire body.

They performed a handful of new songs from their upcoming album, Ritual Union (release date:   July 26), which sounds like it is heavily influenced by house music, the slow and sensual kind that you’d actually dance to at someone’s house.  These new songs were indeed exercises in ritualism, each one sliding comfortably into the next, sounding and feeling like hedonistic hypnotism.  The audience swayed and sashayed to the steadily pulsating beat while looking like zombies trying to follow every move of Yukimi’s synchronized pantomiming.  In between the new songs, they snuck  in some of the older favorites including “My Step,” “Feather,” and “Blinking Pigs” off the Machine Dreams album, all played with a renewed fervor.  For me, “Blinking Pigs” proved to be the treat of the evening as Yukimi and Erik (who was playing drums while barefoot!!!) traded cooperative drum language and served as symbiotic symbols of cymbalist synergy.  They ended the set with an encore of “After The Rain” and a new song, but surprise surprise, no “Constant Surprises!?!?”

After the show, the members of Little Dragon, along with myself and some of the production crew, ended up going to Public House #7, an English pub in Falls Church.  I got a chance to chat with Yukimi for a bit, and I had to ask her one question that had been weighing heavy on my mind since Little Dragon burst onto the scene.  Because she started out being a jazz vocalist on nearly every side project she’d ever done since forming Little Dragon, I was wondering if the band would ever consider using jazz vocals over the dance/pop productions for one of their albums.  Yukimi summed it up by saying “I’m over all that.”  And in that moment, my hopes of that kind of album being made were dashed, but I had a newfound respect for Little Dragon.  They’ve carved out a niche for themselves with a totally unique sound.  For Yukimi, that jazzy sound of yesteryear was what someone else wanted her to be.  The bio on their website states that she would “suffocate if she didn’t start making her own music.”  Luckily, Little Dragon continues breathing fire, making sure that no one stands in the way of them being who they want to be and making the music they want to make.

Click here to download Little Dragon’s new single “Nightlight” on iTunes!

Click here to download Kokayi’s album, Robots and Dinosaurs on iTunes!