- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

If your daughters or nieces aren’t already begging you, go say hi hi to Puffy AmiYumi on Monday at the 9:30 Club, as the Japanese pop/punk girl duo makes a rare U.S. appearance.

The thirtyish “girls” look, sound, and act about 15 years younger, one reason their “Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi Show” is so popular with the 6 to 12 set. Hyperkinetic and surreal even by Cartoon Network standards, the cartoon models itself as a 21st-century version of “The Monkees,” even down to the infectious theme song. (Think “hi hi”=”hey hey”).

Like the Prefab Four, Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura sing but don’t play, except “from time to time the harmonica onstage,” they explain via interpreter from a photo shoot in Kiba, Japan. Nor do they write their own songs, although Andy Sturmer functions well as their Neil Diamond.

Mr. Sturmer’s several contributions to their latest album, “Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi” (Epic/Sony), reflect his days with ‘90s power-popsters Jellyfish, as on the supercharged title track with its Ramones beat and vocal homage to Blondie’s “One Way or Another.” And youngsters may like the early-‘60s sound of “Forever” and “That’s The Way It Is” even if they don’t know the term “Beatlesque.”

“Love So Pure” is indeed lovely, its chiming guitar and glockenspiel giving a Brian Wilson feel, though you need to ignore the trite English lyrics. Luckily for adults, about half the album is in Japanese, and not surprisingly, the girls’ harmonies soar highest on those songs. Yumi agrees that singing harmony in Japanese is easier since they know exactly what they’re singing.

Ami says initially the duo helped to choose what their cartoon selves would look like and supplied story ideas. Now they “don’t help with them” much, although they’re “very involved in the live-action segments” and the show’s use of the band’s music.

Yet as the mixed-language album suggests, Puffy (the “AmiYumi” was added later to keep Sean “Puffy” Combs’ lawyers away) isn’t exactly desperate for U.S. acceptance. Ami agrees it’s not a priority, crediting “the great timing that everything’s fallen into place.”

They’re only playing five U.S. dates this tour. When asked if it’s hard to tour the United States regularly and leave their families, both loudly answer “Yes!” in English.

Yumi says their gig audiences range from teens to children, the latter of course with parents in tow. And while Puffy may play some cover songs this tour, Ami says: “Only people who come will find out.”

“It’s not that far from the coast of Norway to the coast of Scotland,” is how Tempest vocalist/mandolinist (and Oslo native) Lief Sorbye explains his musical roots. The multinational Celtic rock band performs Tuesday at Jammin’ Java in Vienna.

“Nobody’s from here, but we’re based here,” he says from his San Francisco Bay area home. Drummer Adolfo Lazo, with Tempest since its founding 17 years ago, is from Cuba. Guitarist Ronan Carroll is from Dublin, and bassist Ariane Cap is from Austria.

“Our fiddle player is the only ‘native’ American,” Mr. Sorbye says of Michael Mullen.

Mr. Sorbye grew up with Norwegian folk and recorded solo albums of it, and as a teenager played Celtic songs alongside Irish immigrants.

“You can find the same stories and folk songs in both traditions,” he says. “There’s always been a lot of exchange musically, going back to the Viking ships.”

Their latest album, “Shapeshifter” (Magna Carta), contains traditional songs from Appalachia (“Old Man at the Mill”) and Norway (“Fjellmannjenta”), and even a Norwegian fiddle tune that sounds like a Scottish reel. Also in the mix is “Carnival,” a surreal romance accurately listed in the liner notes as “a curious ballad, written in traditional style.”

The highlight here is “Cruel Brother,” an epic Scottish murder ballad that veers off into hard rock, but not before some lilting vocal harmonies during the climactic death scene.

“I bet I could find a traditional Norwegian song with a fairly identical story,” Mr. Sorbye claims.

Speaking of tradition, he makes no apology for mixing rock with traditional sounds. The idea of playing traditional music on electric instruments “really goes back to bands like the Byrds,” and back then even the Beach Boys could make a hit covering “Sloop John B.”

“The only crime you can commit towards traditional music is not playing it,” Mr. Sorbye says. “Once people play it and put their own stamp on it, it’s alive.”

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