BEING THERE: Japanese Breakfast @ Union Trans

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The long-awaited return to live music at Philly’s beloved Union Transfer was spearheaded by none other than Philly’s own Japanese Breakfast. The breakout indie pop unit, headed by frontwoman, author and director Michelle Zauner, played its second of five sold-out shows last night to a packed, masked up crowd spanning all ages, backgrounds and creeds. In terms of homecomings, five nights over six days is wildly impressive without the existence of a pandemic, and exactly what the people needed with one.

The night was as beautiful as it was a stark reminder of the pandemic. The same quirks of concert going returned as we left them: the awkward shifting and glancing around the venue while waiting for the band to go on, fans filling the silence in between songs with scattered yelps and quips, and strangers propositioning you for the purchase of a cigarette in exchange for a dollar. But looking around, having never experienced a live music show with everyone in the crowd wearing masks on their face, I’ll admit: it was fucking weird. Like, a how-is-this-real-life weird. Along with masking, the venue, upon request from the band, checked for proof of vaccination or a negative test within 48 hours of the show upon entry. A girl outside the entrance spoke frantically on the phone. “They’re not letting me in without my vax card. It’s either in my closet or on the stand by the dining room table.” It was a mix of emotions.

The kind of Woodstock-esque cathartic emotional release you’d expect of the crowd was not immediate. Punk rock and indie trio Mannequin Pussy, also Philadelphia natives and direct support for the first three shows of the run, played fast, furious, and with unbridled passion. “Is this your guy’s first show back?” frontwoman Marisa Dabice asked gleefully, and the crowd responded widely in the affirmative. The fans, however, seemed reserved and cautiously enthused as the band powered through their set. The majority of us were, after all, readjusting to live music in a crowded space for the first time in years.

In between songs, Dabice approached the mic. “People say you’re not allowed to scream,” she said quietly. She paused for a moment. “Guess what? You can scream. You can scream and it will feel good. Let it go.” Perhaps sensing the hesitation in the crowd, she proceeded to lead the audience in a group scream. On three, the crowd collectively let out a billowing, cathartic scream, synthesizing the wide variety of emotions the pandemic has elicited into an emotional and blissful release. Fans laughed, cheered, and high-fived. They were home.

It was a textbook warming up of the crowd, and any anxiety that fans had brought in with them to the show had been dissolved just in time for the main act. Zauner took the stage in a gorgeous white gown and a mallet in hand, which she used to ceremoniously ring a gong during the band’s opening song “Paprika”. The crowd sprung into action, dancing their hearts out to hits like “Be Sweet,” “Savage Good Boy,” and “Boyish,” as Zauner alternated between her microphone, guitar and piano in between songs. Spinning spells with her words and effervescent movements across the stage, Zauner took fans on a journey, weaving her melodic vocals through the lush, dreamy synths Japanese Breakfast has so finely honed.

Standing outside of the show, conversation between the bouncers revolved around the pandemic. A woman walked out of the venue, ripped off her mask, and proclaimed with a sigh of relief, “freedom at last!” Music is an escape; live music a destination to leave all of your worries at the door. For now, they’ve found a way in. And while we’ve still got a long way to go, Japanese Breakfast provided a safe environment for fans to celebrate and cherish life once again. — DYLAN LONG