If anyone was wondering where all the balding guys with beards and eyeglasses were two Fridays ago, he or she obviously hadn’t bothered to check in Hoboken, where an inordinate number of them were standing around at Maxwell’s, waiting for Shonen Knife to play their first area gig since 2003. The occasion was the release of bonus-tracked reissues of the long-running Japanese pop-punk trio’s first four albums—heartwarming slabs of mid-’80s indie auteurism on which chops took a backseat to inspiration, humor, hooks, jokes, a deep-seated fascination with animals, and an interest in tasty treats rivaled only by the interests of “Weird Al” Yankovic and countrywomen Cibo Matto. Twenty years ago those balding guys programmed their college radio stations and naively wondered why Shonen Knife couldn’t crack a nation mad for the Bangles and the Go-Go’s.
Whether or not the band ever exuded naïveté themselves—a fraught call, then as now—they didn’t at Maxwell’s. Even in their remastered state, the reissues are tinny and jangly, but after snaking through the crowd toward the club’s stage to the accompaniment of a cheesy synthpop fanfare, the three women launched into a hard-and-fast “Konnichiwa” (complete with choreographed head bangs and devil horn salutes) that sounded more radio-friendly than the major-label stuff from the band’s brief attempt at an early-’90s alt-rock crossover. They know that pop-punk has evolved since Joey Ramone’s day into an amped-up wonderland of muscle-car guitars and mixing-board spectacle, so they happily throw a little of that our way; they’re not cynical opportunists—they just don’t lead as closed-off an existence as some indie fetishists would like.
Thank goodness. “Twist Barbie” crunched as they swiveled in coordinated Piet Mondrian mini-dresses; “Wind Your Spring” had a punk-funk breakdown and a businesslike guitar solo; drummer Etsuko Nakanishi powered through “Flying Jelly Attack” like she was in High on Fire. If new tunes from the band’s upcoming studio album—including “S.P.A.M.: Spam,” about unwanted e-mail—felt redundant, well, that’s Shonen Knife. But all night the trio sounded open to possibility—even if they encored with “I Wanna Be Sedated,” not “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”