Sweet JAP’s first show in 14 years was crazed garage-punk perfection

Sweet JAP onstage at the Turf Club

Sweet JAP onstage at the Turf Club Adam Bubolz

It’s sweat. Reckless abandon. Skinned knuckles and injured backs, bodies (usually the band members’) flying around the stage and into the crowd, all set to a soundtrack of mind-blowing straight-up garage punk by five modern masters of the form.

To say that the last time Sweet JAP played a show it was a manic, crazed affair is to state the obvious. For four years in the George W. Bush era, they were all manic, crazed affairs—explosive energy and straight razor riffs that got the band accolades locally and cover features in internationally distributed punk zines Maximumrockandroll and Razorcake. And then, for 14 years (almost to the day) everything went silent. Until Saturday night.

OK, that’s not really true. Once the band (that’s Sweet Japanese American Princess, if you were wondering) called it quits, the members went on to play in a ton of other bands who earned their own notoriety, including Birthday Suits, the Fuck Yeahs, and In Defence. But still, 2004 left us with a Sweet JAP-sized hole in the heart of an unappreciated era for Twin Cities music. Rather than coasting to a burned-out halt, the band ended with the same sort of tightly wound finality as any of their sets. There was no hiatus, no “taking a break,” no professional stepping back; like the reckless punks they were, when it was done, it was done, and nothing was going to change that.

Which is why Saturday’s sold-out reunion show at the Turf Club, almost a decade and a half later, seemed so completely out of left field. Even crazier, this reunion show was also a record release show for Sweet JAP’s new album, a collection of unreleased recordings and rarities called Be My Venus.

But come on, what would a performance be like 14 years later? Here was a band that was four-fifths Japanese/Japanese-American that used the word “JAP” in their name in a predominantly lily-white rock scene; a band known and beloved for climbing the rafters and PA stacks of every venue in the Twin Cities; a band that, as lead singer Sho once told City Pages, didn’t have political lyrics because their very existence was political? A band, in other words, that took themselves to the edge every time they played. What was that going to look like after 14 years?

Answer: The same sweat. The same reckless abandon. The same skinned knuckles and bodies flying around the stage and still some of the best punk rock the Twin Cities ever produced. (No confirmation on injuries, but definitely some death-defying moments.) And still five masters of the form: Sho, Hideo, Takashi, Matthew, and Ben spent the better part of 45 minutes relentlessly hammering guitars, bass, and drums, plowing through their most beloved songs along with some of the rarities from the new record. Finding it virtually impossible to keep track of a setlist, I gave up after three songs and, like everyone else around me, just took in a band that hadn’t lost a step. That acted like 14 years had never passed: just as manic, crazed, and razor-tight as if it was still 2004.

The crowd: About 60 percent also taking a ride on the Sweet JAP wayback machine, 20 percent too young to know them by anything but name and legend only, and 20 percent uncomfortably out of place and left after Marijuana Deathsquads.

Notes on the openers: If you want to know the sort of sheer bravado that Sweet JAP brings to a show, look how stacked their openers were (no slouches here): Scrunchies is a brilliantly straightforward four-piece take on ’90s grrrl-punk by women who are perhaps better known for screwing with traditional rock and roll forms. Murf is louder than any band you’ve ever seen anywhere and between ridiculous costumes and admonishments to the crowd to “BE HEALTHY,” banged out wildly intense early-’80s hardcore meets AmRep jams. Marijuana Deathsquads mixed three live drummers with the layered, effects-and-sample-heavy attack they’re rightfully renowned for.

Random notebook dump: This is the first time I’ve been in the Turf Club in years that it feels like the University Avenue dive of old. It’s like Sweet JAP is literally making the walls melt.