Hikaru Utada (known as Utada outside of Japan) is an icon in the world of Japanese pop with 14 number one singles on the Oricon chart and an estimated sale of 70 million albums world wide. On March 4 2009 she released her third English language studio album titled This Is the One. In late 2009 it was announced that she would be embarking on a promotional tour starting in Honolulu Hawaii and ending in London, UK.

The Las Vegas show was the 5th stop on the In the Flesh 2010 tour and it was quite the experience. I had friends who had attended the Hawaii, Seattle and San Francisco shows and they had all had extremely positive reviews. Now that I’ve been to one myself I can fully comprehend what they were talking about. The following is my account of the entire concert experience.

Pre-concert

It was a Saturday afternoon in The Mandalay Bay hotel. People were going about their business and I had just returned from running errands for family back home when I decided to check out the House of Blues. I had been notified by fellow concert goers in Hawaii and San Francisco to arrive early to the venue since Utada’s concerts were proving to be very popular and many fans were jockeying for position to get the best seats by lining up early. It wasn’t surprising when I saw an already substantial number of people camped out behind the box office. I asked one of the people if they were lining up for Utada just to be sure, to which the person nodded a yes and went back to doing something with her cell phone.

Realizing that there would soon be more people to come I quickly made my way to my room to drop off my purchases from the morning and to charge my cell phone a little before going back down to the casino floor to camp out with the other Utada fans. Just before 1 I tweeted “It’s 1 in the afternoon and there’s already a line forming for Utada”. Then I received a call from my friends from L.A. who notified me that they were about 20 minutes away from Las Vegas and then proceeded to back to the House of Blues. When I returned to the line it had grown but I still managed to secure a spot close to the front for myself and my companions.

Since my cell phone was still somewhat not fully charged I refrained from using it to play any games to pass the time. I did occasionally log in to tweet my observations in line or to reply to mentions from my friends who were interested in what was going on. I also managed to play a game of Tetris before getting totally owned on the higher speed levels. But mostly I spent my time just blankly staring around the casino floor watching the patrons confusingly stare at us wondering why there were people camped out behind the House of Blues.

As time passed many more fans arrived and the line started to wrap across to the entrances of the casino. My friends arrived shortly after 2 and joined me in the spot I reserved for them. It was great to be around familiar faces and we all were greatly anticipating Utada’s show. We discussed how it amazing it was that we were going to be seeing her soon and how we would get as close to the front as possible. Which I’m sure many of the other fans were doing as well.

One of the ways to increase your chances was to buy a minimum of $15 of merchandise from the House of Blues store and get your receipt stamped for “skip the line” access. So I bought a flask for a friend back home (which will most likely be put to good use), dropped it off in my room and went back to my friends in line. One was sleeping and the other was playing cards & she leant me her DS so I could attempt to play Rhythm Heaven. It was so loud in the casino I could barely play the game properly. Most of the games I knew visually so I did okay, but seeing that it is a rhythm game actually being able to hear the music is essential. But I did manage to not totally fail the ping pong game.

At this point the entire line experience was fine and while there were many fans sitting and camping out we weren’t an obstruction to the flow of traffic within the casino. But then one of the venue staff (who I will call red shirts) asked us all to get up & move to the escalator area so they could set up the barricades for the concert. This is where the peaceful order that we had established turned into chaos and confusion.

For the most part people were civil enough to keep the established order of things the same once we were moved with only a few sneaky people from the back bullying their way in to spots they didn’t have before. We were all huddled together like cattle and there were no places to sit other than the small bit of floor space you could find to attempt to use to do so.

As I stood in line talking to my friends a few cheerful girls from a group behind us introduced themselves and their group to us. To be honest I forgot their names (gomen ne) but I do remember that many of them drove from various parts of the U.S. to see Utada. In the process of introductions I pimped Selective Hearing to the whole group (if there’s anything I’ve learned from my experiences at other concerts, it’s to pimp hard. =P ) and we all stood around talking until the red shirts came around again.

This time they had some barricades for us by the escalators essentially crunching everyone in front together and eliminating the idea of personal space in the process. But innovative fans found a way around that issue by basically extending the barrier a bit so people could have some room to move. As more and more people started to arrive for the concert my friend and I observed that many of them had bewildered looks on their faces wondering why the line was so long. What else did people expect? You have one of the most popular Japanese artists ever making a rare appearance in America. Do you really think no one would show up early for this momentous event?

Again more time passed and by about 4 PM the anticipation started to rise as the red shirts came around verifying the count for the “skip the line” receipts. Then more waiting, more talking and especially more standing. From what I could see from the way the red shirts were setting up the barricades for the line we would not have been in the way & could have sat in our corner by the box office while they set up. Sure some people would have to move but not the entire line.

By 5 PM we lucky folks who had our red dotted “skip the line” receipts were allowed to get closer to the entrance to the venue. Which resulted in even more chaos as people were attempting to form their own lines instead of keeping the established order of things we had back by the escalators. Groups were broken up, people were confused & basically it turned into a giant clusterfuck of massive proportions. We were commenting that our British friends would not approve of this queuing process and would have major rage fits calling us “bloody wankers” or something like that if they saw what was going on.

Luckily my little group was able to stick together throughout the entire process. Although we lost track of the group of cheerful girls who we were talking to before. Which was a shame really as they were quite fun.

As we reached 6 PM the red shirts started scanning tickets and doing bag and airport style body checks. Security is tight at the House of Blues. Cameras were to be checked in (for a fee) and once inside the venue phones were to be turned off. That message was reiterated both verbally and via large signs. Instead of asking us to line up single file the red shirts decided to wade their way through the crowd. It wasn’t the most efficient way to go about things in my opinion, but I’m not going to dispute their methods. It seemed to to be standard operating procedure.

At 7 PM we were told that the doors would open and that we were to proceed in a calm & orderly manner with no running. Of course, once the doors opened that was ignored & it was a free for all. People rushed the entrance and even yelled “stairs!” to warn their fellow concert goers about possible hazards. I was separated from my group but caught up to them quickly & secured a very sweet spot.

I was front row center and normally that would mean I would be some distance away from the main stage but in this case I was really close. It was similar to the placement I had for the Hangry & Angry concert in Seattle. I could see everything so clearly. At the front was a DJ set up for the opener Mike Rizzo. Behind that was the drums & percussion. To the sides were 2 keyboard rigs and on the right the bass & to the left the lead guitar.

Behind all that was a giant projector screen in the middle and 2 smaller ones on each side. The House of Blues venue was really nice with standing room on the side railings & floor. Seating was on an upper balcony section. I was expecting it to be a small place but found it to be a fair size. So as I got comfortable and worked on having a bit of personal space I heard Deep/Soulful House blasting from the PA. Oh how sweet it was to hear some real House music. I looked around & people were grooving along to the sound, which was a surprising but I was happy to see that there were some people who still responded to that type of House.

Around 7:30 DJ Mike Rizzo arrived to prep for his opening set. He had a blue CD bag with him & that was about it. He popped in a CD, did a short mix & the proceeded to walk off the stage. I was kind of like “what?” and wondered what was going on. The next half hour we listened to a mix CD of House music which I didn’t mind, but I found it puzzling that no one was up on stage mixing anything live.

Opening Act

8 PM hit and DJ Mike Rizzo walked back on to the stage & put the headphones on and officially started the concert. He greeted the crowd and said Utada would be on at 9. From where I was standing there was a collective groan of agony from members of the crowd as they were hungry for some Utada action. Instead we had to wait as Mike Rizzo hyped the crowd up with a of mix many, many, many Top 40 remixes ranging from acts such as the Pussycat Dolls, Rihanna and Sean Paul.

I don’t like to knock fellow DJ’s as I myself understand how difficult the job is. I mean it just isn’t knob twiddling & stuff but perhaps it’s because the natives were restless that they were not very responsive his set. Well except for the group of drunken guys on the left who were cheering every time they got a drink. So perhaps that doesn’t count. He did manage to get the crowd to loosen up once the last 15-20 minutes of his set came around so it wasn’t all bad.  Perhaps this set would have worked in another city but the Vegas crowd was having none of it.

The Main Event

Set List

  1. Intro
  2. On & On
  3. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – FYI –
  4. Poppin
  5. This One (Crying Like A Child)
  6. Passion / Sanctuary
  7. Sakura Drops
  8. Stay Gold
  9. Devil Inside
  10. Kremlin Dusk
  11. You Make Me Want To Be A Man
  12. The Bitter End
  13. Apple & Cinnamon
  14. Come Back To Me
  15. First Love
  16. Can You Keep A Secret?
  17. Automatic
  18. Dirty Desire
  19. Simple & Clean
  20. Me Muero

9 PM and the band members arrived on stage. The lights dimmed, an introduction played & the crowd came to life. Cheers, clapping and a loud chant of “Utada!” echoed throughout the concert hall. I could hardly hear the introduction myself since it was so loud. Then after a few moments she appeared on stage wearing a form fitting black velvet dress with strategic rips & tears & some nice studded/jeweled boots. Her hair was much longer (down to her shoulders) and was fashioned in a messy rock star kind of style. To sum all that up, she looked amazing.

She started with On & On and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence -FYI- which got the crowd pretty hyped up. The majority of the songs played after were from the This Is the One album mixed with cuts from her older albums and a cover of Placebo’s The Bitter End. The Japanese songs (unsurprisingly) got the biggest responses and it was cool that quite a number of them were included in the set list.

From the start I was standing in awe watching her perform and was so thankful for my place on the floor. She has such an incredible stage presence and is a master of working the audience. To be honest, I didn’t even notice the band after a while; I was just looking at her and watching every movement she made. Her body flowed with the music so effortlessly and nothing ever looked to be forced. I saw that when she looked into the crowd, she looked at people directly and basically eye raped them. Yes, that is a good thing.

Vocally she was perfect. She has such a dynamic range that it made it difficult to sing along but some people made the attempt to keep up with her. (Most were really loud & off key) Others just chanted at the appropriate times instead of trying.  But anyway, wow can she ever belt out those songs and in an extremely subtle way. There were no unnecessary diva notes, long runs or other pointless vocal gymnastics.

The MC segments had some interesting bits. I was not used to hearing her speak English at all. Sing it yes, speak it no. But the small breaks in between songs were pretty funny & she tended to improv a lot. For example, the first segment she went to get a sip of water & she noticed that her straw had a tear in it. So she went on about the straw instead of whatever she was supposed to talk about.

When it came for her sing Sakura Drops she had to explain what the big black box in front of her was. It was her keyboard covered with a cloth since she’s been wearing a lot of skirts on her concert tour. She had alluded to people thinking she was going to do magic tricks as part of her show whenever the keyboard came out.

It’s difficult to pick any stand out performances from this concert because the entire thing was outstanding. But for me I think the piano set she did starting at Sakura Drops and ending with Stay Gold was something special. Seeing her sit at the piano and just sing was awesome. Also hearing Devil Inside performed live was another highlight. It’s no secret that I don’t exactly dig the Exodus album and that song is one of the few that I love from it. Kremlin Dusk was a song I initially disliked but after watching her rock that song out I don’t have such a strong dislike for it anymore. In fact I kind of like it now.

Dirty Desire ended the concert portion of the set and after the band & Utada left the stage the crowd got really loud chanting “Utada!” and when that died down my friend started shouting “An-Ko-Ru!” (The wota chant for encore) which everyone else joined in on. So props dude for bringing a bit of H!P touch to the show.

After about 5 minutes the band returned to the stage shortly followed by Utada. The encore songs were Simple & Clean (although many were hoping it would be Hikari) and Me Muero. I recently found out what the title of that song means so now the lyrics make a lot more sense to me.  At the end of Me Mureo there was a bit of fan service when Utada started throwing baseballs into the crowd.

She wasn’t winging them at high velocity or anything but more like slow, high lobs. I was too far up front to really have a chance at a ball but that didn’t matter at all. After that show ended and everyone started to make their way back into the casino.

Post Concert

The line ups to reach to the exits were long so my group stopped at the bar to get water & I got a Red Bull. I didn’t really notice the pain in my feet during the concert but after the adrenaline rush of seeing Utada wore off, they hurt. I had some trouble making it up the stairs to the exit and was thankful once I got to the top.

Thankfully there was an opportunity to sit down while I waited for my friend to pick up her camera and I spent my last American dollar (I gave most of them away as a tip for the Red Bull) on a slot machine. I lost that dollar in 10 seconds by the way. No lucky freak jackpot for me unfortunately.

Once the camera was picked up we stopped by a pastry store and sat down & talked about the epicness of what we had just witnessed. When I was able to walk again I went back to the House of Blues to see if there was any Utada concert merchandise to be snagged. Much like every other show there was none. I hobbled away disappointed but relieved that I could sit down again.

Then it was off to a late night dinner, goodbyes and back to my room. Where I stayed up for another hour; talking to people in the chat rooms about the concert.

Final Thoughts

My experience with J-Pop concerts has mostly been with idol related shows. This was my first real artist-based concert and it did not disappoint at all. I was glad that this was in a club setting rather than an arena because it gave off that more intimate vibe. I mean it’s rare to be in any type of close proximity to an artist of Utada’s caliber during a show so I consider myself fortunate to have clawed my way to the front.

I realize that her next shows on the East coast and in London are sold out but if you can find any way to get a ticket to her concert I highly suggest you do so. If you’re on the fence about her music, this show will convert you. If you’re already a fan then this will just make you a bigger one.

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