This post should start with a long disclaimer.
I have seen over 300 shows at Tokyo Garden. I have been going there since I was 19 years old. I have drank there, ate there, shat there, puked there and fought there. I have known the family that currently owns the restaurant for a long time (though I have never been able to recall their last name) and I have been booking shows there for 4 years now.
Ok. Now for the boring part.
For the uninitiated, Tokyo Garden is a 125 person capacity restaurant and venue in Fresno,California. It has been serving authentic Japanese food for over 50 years and, according to the owners, is the first Japanese restaurant in the United States. The décor is super kitschy, a mixture of somewhat beat-up 50’s era tables, an almost tiki-like bar, wood paneling and giant Godzilla dolls.
There really is no cooler place on earth. You couldn’t find a more delightful dive on Delancey or on South Congress. The bartenders are a super reserved, gruff Japanese duo name Tommy and Toshi. They are brothers and the owners of the joint. You can trust them to pour you a great drink, and give you the evilest eye while the pour it. They are notoriously mean.
On Friday nights they host a karaoke night and the first and third Sundays are reserved for the local Jazz heroes to come out and have a jam. The first and third Jazz Sundays are either the coolest or lamest nights to come to Tokyo Garden. The music is great. Everyone seems into it. The downside is that you’ll never find a place to sit and you will have to wait an hour to get a drink or have a meal. Tokyo Garden is chronically short staffed.
It is the only bar I know of, besides Cheers, that has its own theme song.
My favorite nights are when we manage to pull in some unsuspecting touring musician who is wayyyy to big for the room. The first show I booked there was with Aaron Espinoza (of Earlimart) and Jason Lytle (of Grandaddy). We had convinced them to come up and play a benefit show. The local elementary school’s music programs had been cut and we had decided that the proceeds from the show would go to help a local school’s music budget.
The show was the night before the Earlimart CD Release party in LA for Treble and Tremble. At that time, Earlimart was in every music magazine, and Grandaddy was already a household name for us kids form the Central Valley. The show was packed and everyone sat in a hippie circle on the floor in front of the stage for Lytle’s set. They sang along to all the old Grandaddy anthems and I remember he also played a lot of new songs that ended up being on “Just Like the Fambly Cat”. I remember “Rear View Mirror” really well. That is such a pretty song.
Aaron followed up with some great tunes. He had all these little crickets going off around the stage and he had brought a Space Echo all the way from his studio in LA that he used on a great cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”. Which is a bad ass song that Aaron does a bad ass version of.
That was one of my favorite shows ever.
Last fall we convinced John Vanderslice to hold the first show of his national tour here at Tokyo Garden. It was really stressful. He had lots of big sound requirements in his rider and Tokyo Garden doesn’t really have anything powerful on its roster of sound equipment. We have two mics, a 4 channel Yamaha PA, some crusty old power amps, two monitors and two 15” house speakers. That is all.
Luckily, Vanderslice was being tour managed by Dave Willingham, who, besides being a really responsible, kick-ass dude, is also a fantastic engineer. He owns a studio in Denton, TX called the Echo Lab and has an amazing ear and years of experience. He basically kicked me off the mixing board and started fiddling with things and brought out giant rolls of gaffer’s tapes, effects processors, microphones, sharpie markers, you name it.
He ended up making JV sound pretty marvelous and for the encore, JV marched out into the street in front of Tokyo Garden and sang his last song surrounded by a gaggle of drunk people and honking cars (that is what the that blurry cellphone pic is of). I had a feeling he pulled that “walk outside for the encore” move a couple times on his tour. But rest assured. It was never better than that night he did it at Tokyo.
And if there is anything magic about Tokyo Garden, it is exactly that : the potential for greatness lingers in the air there. I have seen a TON of shitty shows there, but I have never seen a better show anywhere else in the entire world.
If you are interested in booking a show at Tokyo Garden, I recommend you go through their myspace initially. It can be pretty tricky to get a show as they only have live music once or twice a week. The best way to do it, if you aren’t a national touring act, is to approach a local band about helping put together a bill.
Like I said, I have seen a lot of shitty shows here to. Hey Fresno people! What was your favorite, or least favorite Tokyo Garden show?
DOWNLOAD : Brad Basmajian - Tokyo Garden Theme Song
LINK : Official Tokyo Garden Website
LINK : Tokyo Garden Myspace
LINK : Kurtz’s Collection of Tokyo Garden pics on Flickr