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Review: Yukimi Nagano, Little Dragon show flashes of greatness at Crowbar in Ybor City



If there is a metaphorical precipice dividing dreary anonymity from impossible fame, Swedish pop-electronic soulsters Little Dragon are teetering on the edge of it.

The Gothenburg quartet proved Thursday to a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at Crowbar in Ybor City that they are indeed picking up steam and on their way to being a runaway train. This show was a warmup to Coachella, where they will be playing again with Damon Albarn's ersatz supergroup, Gorillaz. The band -- and especially singer Yukimi Nagano -- was featured in two cuts off the cartoon collection's latest album, Plastic Beach, a fairly high-concept, largely R&B-inspired disc released not even two weeks ago that boasts the likes of Snoop Dogg, Mos Def and Bobby Womack. This is following a brief tour with TV on the Radio, too. That's not bad for a hard-to-categorize pack of high school chums who just wanted to make their own music.

That's what Yukimi & Co. feel like: A grown-up basement band with the will and the talent to make it. While she and her boys -- drummer Erik Bodin, bass player Fredrik Wallin and keyboardist Håkan Wirenstrand -- blended in with the Crowbar crowd listening to the pre-show DJs, there was an air about them as they took the stage just past 11:30, a sense that maybe, just maybe, something big was happening here.

Nagano is no slouch in the vocals department; After singing with Swedish electronic jazz duo Koop and working with Nordic lounge greats Hird and Andreas Saag (not to mention Japan's jazzy Sleep Walker), Yukimi has developed a style all her own. In an age where everything is compared to something else, think Billie Holiday meets Gwen Stefani, with a liberal dose of Bjork's attitude providing some flavor.

As the set began with cuts of both their eponymous debut and Machine Dreams, it became obvious the Swedes could do something many electronic outfits cannot: Play a live show and make it complex. Starting with A New, then working through Test and After the Rain, Wirenstrand hammered through difficult arrangements, Wallin juggled his electric bass while manning his own soundboard and Bodin showed why he's good enough to hammer the skins for Swedish alt-folk singer Jose Gonzalez.

But Yukimi proved without a doubt the band is hers, no matter how much respect she pays her bandmates for their contributions. As talented as they group is, don't ever expect a Sneaker Pimps-like fracture; Nagano is not the cast-aside Kelli Dayton to her band's Chris Corner and Liam Howe. Her voice is an instrument in its own right, the fourth component to a jazz quartet, gliding through the bars of Never Never, My Step and Looking Glass, projecting her soulful style as a complement to the mosaic of electronica onstage.

Don't be fooled -- reproducing studio-like sound with electronic instruments is difficult, given the difference in richness between a studio track and a live performance. Looking Glass still sounded as beat heavy and drum-tight as always, while B-side Stranger counterbalanced the single-friendly Blinking Pigs.

Nagano knows how to connect to her crowd, slinking across the stage in a shapeless tee dress, jabbing at various handheld percussion instruments and goading her friends on, exuding the kind of star quality that would make an autotune diva like Ke$ha sick with envy. In a crowd roughly split between male and female, both seem equally rapt by her performance. The daughter of a Japanese man and American woman, mostly raised in Sweden, she is sex appeal and innocence, wrapped up in tidy package of multicultural hipster cred.

This chemistry extends to her crew, as long solos during Feather and Runabout proved she can wait her turn and let her band play before adding that voice, which finally was showcased in Twice, the powerful, melancholy single that found its way onto Grey's Anatomy back in season five.

For an encore, the group took liberties with their track Swimming, augmenting the backbeat and unleashing a dance-ready tempest that shows Little Dragon is aching for a regular place in radio rotation. As the vocals wound down, little Yukimi stepped off stage into the crowd, leaving Erik, Fredrik and Håkan to enjoy the spotlight alone and weave just a little more richness into their soundscape.

But when the stage was unplugged and the house lights came back up, there was Yukimi at the merchandise table, shoveling boxes of t-shirts bigger than she and working the crowd as her bandmates came to join her.

And for a few moments, it was impossible to fathom a group as talented as Little Dragon selling their own t-shirts in smoky bars for much longer.

[Photo: Håkan, Yukimi, Erik and Fredrik, who just had to ruin a great shot by blinking. Maybe next time.]

-- Joshua Gillin, tbt*

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 3:18pm]


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