Welcome to the Japan Times live blog of the 2019 Fuji Rock Festival. We’ll be here for the duration.
For reasons that remain unexplained, the London experimental trio The Comet Is Coming started their late-night Red Marquee set about 15 minutes earlier than scheduled. Consequently, we arrived in the middle of a song that had already climaxed dramatically. It was a bit of a letdown, since the whole point of the band is the way they build to a chaotic finish.
But that’s slightly misleading, since Comet’s real achievement is how they start at 10 and just keep getting louder and wilder. The focus of the band is the keyboards of Danalogue the Conqueror, who seems to lead the group and has the most extroverted personality. On stage he stood behind his bank of instruments and made the most out of the band’s hip-hoppy grooves.
But the band’s secret weapon is saxophonist King Shabaka, whose wailing insistence never lets up, even when the arrangement calls for a bit of quiet. Though often categorized as jazz, the band’s music is more like garage rock taken to the extreme: The idea is to build tension until there’s nothing left to compromise. The audience dug the dynamic, but you could sense that some felt there was more to life than wailing incessantly for an hour.
The rest of us couldn’t get enough, and in that sense The Comet Is Coming is the jazz cognate of Death Grips, another trio that takes its chosen genre — hip hop — to extremes that no one else knew existed. The fact is, club kids like the ones who went crazy as Comet itself get their point probably better than bona fide jazzbos do.
James Blake at the White Stage | Mark Thompson photos
James Blake doesn’t seem like the kind of artist who would headline a stage at a major music festival. His music is subdued, and he doesn’t possess the kind of personality that makes a show dynamic. Still, the White Stage field was packed for his Sunday evening show, and the audience waited patiently and quietly, because that’s the way he approaches his music.
Blake is at heart a soul singer with a close familiarity with the appeal of classic R&B, but he’s also a pianist who likes complex chord structures and elaborate arrangements. His fans appreciate his emotional directness, which comes through in his pure tone, but he likes his electronics, too, and sometimes his use of them is even weirder than Thom Yorke’s. The only other people on stage were a drummer and a utility player who could handle everything from cello to an elaborate bank of dials and buttons.
His affection for hip-hop is obvious, even if he lacks the kind of effusiveness required of hip-hop. He’ll never be a rapper, so he hires the best (Andre 3000 in this case) and even loops them for his concerts. And while subdued is the operative word, he can build up a head of steam and even jam when the occasion calls for it.
But it’s clear that what the audience wanted was the kind of cathartic emotionalism that made Blake’s name in the first place. He’s in his element when he’s heartbroken and ruminative. It’s an odd job description for a pop star, but you could tell the crowd was never happier than when he could barely express himself.
It’s important to remember that the Field of Heaven was originally conceived as a venue for Phish. They headlined all three nights at the inaugural Naeba festival on the Field of Heaven. Since then, Heaven has become associated with something broader: authenticity as characterized by blues, soul, world music, and not just general instrumental chops.
In a sense, Khruangbin, the Houston power trio who takes Asian pop forms and dubs them up into infectious guitar music, brings the Field of Heaven back to its roots. Though not technically a jam band, their reliance on improvisational interpretations of classic pop feels more genuine, and the huge crowd that showed up for their Sunday night gig was proof of that.
It’s also important to remember that the band is not as serious as they seem. Guitarist Mark Speer and bassist Laura Lee wore what might be charitably referred to as space drag — he dressed top to toe in gold lame with pointed shoulders, she in a kind of white-red Barbarella getup. They also wear those matching wigs, making them kindred spirits with that other anxious pop artist who appeared this weekend, Sia.
As the grooves developed and pulsed the pair would occasionally resort to sexy coordinated moves. At one point, when partaking of what looked like cocktails, they toasted the audience without missing a beat.When Speer finally addressed the crowd, it was as the coolest hippie in the joint. “Hey y’all, we’re really happy that you dig this groovy sound.” Ok, well, that’s what it sounded like to me.
The point is that Khruangbin is not chops-oriented. They’d likely be laughed out of the jam band fraternity (though their drummer, Donald Johnson Jr., could probably get a job with any top notch funk or jazz outfit), but they understand the vibe that presides at the Field of Heaven, a place where the Fuji Faithful go to lose themselves in expansive music.
It’s perhaps understandable that Vince Staples, one of the moment’s most vital rap stars, wasn’t sure if he’d ever been to Japan before. “I think it’s my first time here,” he said early into his hour-long set at the White Stage Sunday evening.
Then again, it could have been some other cognitive dysfunction. He also asked what time it was, and seemed bewildered, more than once, at the size of the audience. Not that he probably had never performed before such a large crowd, but rather that he couldn’t wrap his around the concept of this happening in Japan.
Consequently, the concert, though often intense and certainly fast-paced, had a certain uncertain quality to it. Staples kept asking for the crowd’s approval, which they offered unconditionally, but he never seemed to buy it. “You wanna party?” he said, making good on at least one of his briefs, which is a nostalgia for the kind of hip-hop founded on weekend get-togethers. But Staples is also uneasy with his lot as a party animal, as exemplified by his visual motif.
He was the only person on stage — no band or even a DJ — and the background was a grid of TV screens of familiar American TV shows, all of which somehow featured Staples, as it he’d seen himself in them while growing up.
“I love it out here,” he confessed during the confessional “Late Night,” and if was tempting to think he was talking about Fuji’s natural setting, maybe it was just the fact that he was out of his element, preaching to a crowd that wanted to be entertained but had yet to make sense of where he was coming from. Most rappers wouldn’t have bothered, but Staples genuinely seemed to care, and while the crowd dodged and weaved to the potent beats and Staples’ exceptional conversational flow, they couldn’t quite satisfy his desire to connect on a level that maybe he himself didn’t understand. “I hope everybody’s happy today,” he said, apropos of nothing but indicative of everything.
There seems to be a performative style in Japanese popular art that favors over-emoting. Yesterday, the band Kinnan Boyz demonstrated the punk aspect of this idea with an early morning show that was so over the top that the audience seemed clearly put off. I mean, the lead singer was literally foaming at the mouth by the send song.
Kohh does pretty much the same thing for Japanese hip hop. As the most formidably honest rapper in Japan, his brief is total emotional engagement. And while his musical style leans toward West Coast minimalism, he has nothing of the West Coast spirit, which is imbued more with anger than resignation, which sounds like Kohh’s default mode. “Leave Me Alone” is his most characterizing song.
Can Kohh make a difference? On the back of his T-shirt was the logo, Blood Sweat and Gears, a reference to drugs in British slang, and one that he seemed to understand fully, mentioning at one point that it’s something we should talk about. Interestingly, the video feed picked up someone in the crowd holding up a T-shirt supporting Pierre Taki, the electronica artist arrested for drug possession. Would Kohh, if he had been in the same circumstance, have apologized and bowed before authority if he were also caught with drugs?
It’s a plausible question if you consider how seriously Kohh’s music takes his engagement with being out of the loop, which in Japan is especially fraught. Musically, Kohh is getting more into R&B and even singing in the T-Pain style. From where I stood, the audience seemed ambivalent, but maybe I just wasn’t close enough. Kohh may still be too far ahead of them.
James Brown is generally credited with inventing funk, but, of course, his main inspiration was an African aesthetic that had little hold on his everyday life. It was just there in his heritage as an African-American. Benin music a long time ago incorporated JB’s funk into its ritual style, essentially revivifying funk twice removed. Of the bands who have championed this style, none is more internationally pervasive than Vaudou Game.
Led by the charismatic and very tall Peter Solo, the band is smaller than its huge sound might indicate, and while it uses Brown’s various funk ideas in its music, the basic feeling is African rhythms and melodies. Holding forth at the Field of Heaven on Sunday, Solo was a true master of ceremonies, bringing the assembled masses into the fold of his music while at the same time proselytizing for his specific world view.
“You can feel the nature here,” he said, gesturing toward the forest that surrounds the venue. “This nature is better than the houses and money you treasure.” Though English is probably his third language, and the audience’s stopgap foreign language of obligation, the sentiment came through, though it took Solo a good twenty minutes to deliver his thesis, time that might have been better spent boogieing.
But boogie they did, and the the crowd fell into the grooves — more subtle and less doctrinaire than Brown’s — with an effortless ease. What came through was a clear love of the Fuji ideal on the part of Solo and his multi-racial ensemble and a return of love from people who had already absorbed that ideal. It was a perfect symbiosis of intent and desire.
Materially speaking, Solo’s sartorially choices and his natural showman impulses meant the concert moved immediately to the get-down mode. In one song, it seems as if everyone on stage was playing “the one” on cowbell (or the Beninese equivalent. The crowd went wild and the band honored their enthusiasm with not one, but two encores. “Let me ask them if they’re happy,” said Solo, not indicating whether he was discussing the crowd or his band. No matter, we were all ecstatic.
The modern R&B outfit Phony PPL get no favors from their self-deprecating moniker. Formed in 2009, they have over the years garnered praise from a number of critics but haven’t been able to transmute that into commercial success. Basically a Brooklyn bunch of high school pals, the group eschews hard core hip-hop for the kind of uplifting soul music that crossed over in the mid to late 70s: Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, that sort of thing.
Lead singer Elbie Three clearly is affected by ten years of neglect from the general public and seemed genuinely surprised that the fairly large Japanese contingent that greeted their Japan debut at the Red Marquee on Sunday afternoon was there to party. After their first song received a huge ovation, he said, “You really like that for real?” The resounding response was unequivocal.
Such enthusiasm only emboldened the front man, who continued with a motormouth MC act that didn’t go over the heads of the assembled if only because they’d probably been here before: most African-American pop acts adhere to a certain pattern of entertainment signifiers.
At one point Elbie asked for all the “fellas” to raise their hands, and then for all the “ladies” to do the same. The crowd knew exactly what to do from practice, though they probably didn’t know why they were being asked to do so. The accompanying song was a smash anyway.
The requisite drum and bass breaks elicited huge ovations on their own, which only prodded the band on to new heights of performative abandon and Ellie to new heights of host-level hyperbole. “Y’all ready to move?” he called, and the crowd knew how to react.
To his credit, Elbie played to the “people in the back,” understanding that they were the ones he had to convert if he was going to sell records, which was probably the main subtext of the whole show. “Don’t forget to check out our new album, ‘Mosaic’,” he said at least 50 times.
If people were paying, I would say they definitely got their money’s worth, but they weren’t in the strictest sense. In terms of promotion, I hope that Phony PPL got what they expected, but in the end all they can really hope for is a really great memory. They faced a sincere audience and I think came away better for it, but not necessarily more materially successful.
There’s something a bit grand about this group’s name, considering there are only five members, and after watching their performance under a blazing hot sun at the Field of Heaven on Sunday, you get the impression that they have a lot of fun with expectations. After all, they are essentially three traditional Thai instrumentalists backed by a rhythm section that is seriously into funk.
The allocation of parts seems fairly simple. The electrified Thai lute, the pin, is the lead instrument and does pretty much what a guitar normally does, while the pipes fill in for synths, keyboards, and strings. The guy on the finger cymbals isn’t going to take the drummer’s job away, but he wasn’t chopped liver, either.
But it was the rhythm section, especially the bass player, Piyanart Jotikasthira, who not only formed the melodic bedrock but also provided English language explanations of the songs. He would say the title of the song in Thai and then translate it into English (“This is called ‘Tricky Little Deer’,” though I wonder if it was actually titled “Tricky Little Dear”?) One of the most dramatic songs they played was called “Chasing the Cow,” which he said was a song about farmers. Never realized farm life was that exciting.
But it was the funk that got the crowd moving. When they started, there was only a handful of people in front of the stage, but by mid-point the whole field was rocking and grooving.
The lute player, Pinpech Thipprasert, has got to be both the Jerry Garcia and Ray Parker Jr. of his particular instrument, because there were passages when he was wailing, and that immovable back beat just kept pounding and pounding. The pipes would often add counterpoint on the off beats, like the organ fills in the old JBs. You come for the exotic, slightly misleading name, and you stay to get down.
It was a cinch that Australian singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly was going to win the hearts of the Fuji Faithful as soon as she walked on the stage. Diminutive but wearing a big smile and even bigger earrings, she exuded the kind of sincere confidence of an ingenue who knows not only what she’s worth but how to make it worth it to others.
She wisely did her first four songs solo, just her and her electric guitar, which she played with a knowing simplicity that indicated real chops even if she wasn’t going to show them off. But it was mainly the voice that made everyone fall in love with her: big but not brassy, pure but not mannered, high but not girlish like other indie singers of her ilk. It was a full instrument that cut through the Red Marquee like a knife.
It also put paid to her subject matter, which is mostly about what jerks most people are, and by most people, I mean men. Though English songs tend to go over the heads of the Japanese audience if they haven’t studied them beforehand, Donnelly’s “You Owe Me,” about an asshole boss who “jerks off to CCTV” seemed to make a deep impression. Hasn’t everyone had such a boss? In any case, the song sparked an ovation that was obviously not just a reaction to the limpid melody and Donnelly’s delivery.
After getting the crowd to say hello to Donnelly’s dad back in Australia, watching presumably on YouTube, she brought out her band, which she described as “old friends,” meaning they’ve known each other as human beings longer than they have as musicians, and the camaraderie showed. At one point, she and her utility man, Jack, did some “dance moves” (though at first I thought she said “dad moves,” which, considering the pokey quality of the movements, wasn’t far off) to the song “Die,” which isn’t an imperative, but used in the sense of “I don’t want to…” In any case, it was a very upbeat and fun song, hence the lockstep choreography, which had more to do with school calisthenics than with Janet Jackson. Unfortunately, the shed was packed, so there was no room for the audience to hop along, though many tried their best, cracking Donnelly up at one point. Not many new artists get to appreciate the whole spectrum of Japanese audience participation during their very first show in the country. She obviously felt blessed.
The crowd at the opening act on the Green Stage Sunday was smaller than usual, most likely owing to the probability that campers were still mopping up their tents and hotel stayers were hair-drying their sodden shoes. They really missed something. The Inner Mongolian big band, Hanggai, put on quite a show under mostly cloudy skies.
Dressed in a smattering of traditional clothing but mostly looking like your average California slacker rock outfit, the huge group brought along its 7-member horn section, which didn’t always have a lot to do instrumentally, but their collective background voices gave the group its main selling point: irresistible choruses that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Front Man Iichi, sporting the coolest sunglasses at the festival, reportedly started out his music career in a punk band, and there was something of the snotty showman in his stage demeanor, goosing the crowd’s early morning desire to get this party started while demonstrating same by going through can after can of samples from Japan’s finest corporate breweries. “Kampai” seemed to be the only Japanese he knew, but he knew it well.
Though at least two members did some throat singing, and Iichi has said in interviews that his mission is to bring the traditional music of Mongolia to the city (the band is based in Beijing), for the most part the songs were a hodgepodge of traditional tropes and pop skills. One song, built around some sinuous trumpet lines, was a full-blooded blues, and one galloping horse song started out in bluegrass mode, complete with Chinese banjo and the Mongolian version of the erhu taking the fiddle parts. Pretty soon the song had taken on a life of its own and just kept getting faster and faster. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” on the Gobi Desert.
The party purport was further promoted by the introductions. A non-Asian woman, the only member of the horn section in traditional dress, introduced the section in English using the kind of lingo you’d hear in a Vegas lounge act, except she concluded her stint by offering, “I hope you dance your ass off.” I’m sure she wasn’t disappointed.
How come nobody told us about this tropical storm? Though the Fuji Faithful know to expect some rain over the weekend, The relentless deluge that started dropping water bombs on the festival in the late afternoon was exceptional in both its intensity and duration.
There are few places to seek shelter from the elements at the festival, and, naturally, they were all stuffed with soggy punters: the Red Marquee and the Blue DJ tent at the west end; the Orange Court eating areas at the east end. Stuck out on the east end when it really started coming down, we decided to forego George Porter Jr. and American Football and hid out at the Cafe de Paris, where a DJ was spinning deep classic rock and folk-country album cuts. When he put on “I Shall Be Released” we wondered if we’d ever get out of the makeshift cafe, whose floor boards were erupting with geysers even inside the tent. At least they had alcohol.
Rather than risk another drenching we skipped over the puddles to a little makeshift eatery near the back entrance to our hotel, a place called Don’s Cafe (Don is apparently a dog; you can buy T-shirts and coasters with his panting mug), which was packed. The only food they had left at that hour was soup and pickles, but they really hit the spot. Don’s also had entertainment: a very bad Japanese comedian riffing in English; a very good Japanese country band featuring shakuhachi and a repertoire that included a Japanese-language version of Talking Heads’ “Heaven”; and a sui generis female singer sporting a white wig and accompanied by a single guitarist (very good) and some old guy shouting encouragement and adding percussion. There was even a little boy who seemed familiar with the act. She sang as if this was her big chance at stardom, here on the margins of Fuji Rock at Don’t Cafe with the rain pouring down outside. Sounds like something from a movie.
Courtney Barnett at the White Stage | Mark Thompson photos
A good part of Courtney Barnett’s success, especially in Japan where she’s managed to generate a dedicated cult, is her seemingly unforced honesty, a quality that is manifest in the Australian rocker’s songs, which sound like a person you really want to know talking in plain language. The fact that she can marry this artistic sensibility to kickass guitar rock without making it sound ironic or contrary only makes her that much more unusual, even in the rarefied world of indie rock.
She had a lot to contend with during her afternoon set at the White Stage, for the most part an audience whose exuberance was literally dampened by one of those downpours that soaks you to the bone in less than a minute. There was actually a river running through the north side of the White Stage field. She voiced her appreciation for us standing there just to hear her play, and then she ripped the place up.
Another saving grace was that she looked great. Gone are the baggy T-shirts and homemade haircut. She looked rock star ready in her pure white tank top and tight black jeans, and when she tore through one her patented pick-and-strum (no pick!) solos the crowd got back a little of its mojo.
“You know this is the best festival in the world,” she said near the end of her set. “Thanks so much for making it possible for me to come.” Gratuitous pleasantries in most artists’ mouths, but Barnett makes her living telling it like it is.
She even played a new song called “Everybody Hates You,” proving that honesty cuts both ways. When she started her last song, the rain stopped, as if the weather decided it would give her, and her fans, a break.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra | Mark Thompson photos
Ruban Nielson, the leader of New Zealand’s-by-way-of-Portland band Unknown Mortal Orchestra, doesn’t seem to know what he wants to be: a guitar god, a slick R&B vocalist, or a fusion bandleader. He demonstrated all three skills within the first four minutes of taking the White Stage on Saturday afternoon before a very appreciative audience, though they didn’t quite know what to think when he almost immediately jumped off the stage with his guitar and continued playing a solo while five security guys and a roadie followed him as he went deep into the audience. Guitar god? Check.
Several songs later he did the same thing but without a guitar. All he had was the mic, as he kept singing a sweet love song. Sex-you-up R&B lover man? Check.
Then, a song or two later he conducted the whole band as they chugged into an improvisational freakout that ended with a manic sax solo by his father, Chris. Fusion pretensions? Check.
The band they reminded more than any was probably Steely Dan, not so much in terms of sound but rather ambition. The tricky time and key signatures should indicate pretensions of a less laudable sort, but UMO pulls them off so seamlessly you don’t register them as “difficult,” and there’s a Top 40 vibe to Nielsen’s songwriting that makes you wonder if he would have been a star if he’d come up in the ’70s instead of the ’90s or ’00s. As it is he’s just another indie mensch who tends to get misclassified.
And if it’s any consolation to him, I did see one white dude mouthing the words to “So Good At Being In Trouble,” so obviously Nielsen’s reach is longer than I thought. And when he tried an Elvis move that weirdly turned into a JB move you know he yearns for the kind of pop popularity he thinks he deserves. I think he deserves it, too.
Melina Mae Duterte is a real SoCal kid, and writes like one. As Jay Som she revives the sunny West Coast sound we tend to associate with laid back guys like Ned Doheny, though in her case the songs service a much more personal, circumscribed world. She calls herself a bedroom singer-songwriter because that’s literally where she produces music, and even with a full band in tow at the Red Marquee on Saturday afternoon, she looked and sounded like a lone soul: dressed ultra casually in camo cargo pants, a loose-fitting khaki T-shirt and floppy white hat, she could have been a wannabe army reserve slacker.
Her music would have been perfect in an open air setting with the sun shining, but it was raining again, and while the shed preserved the illusion of fair weather, it put a damper on the sunny feelings. The crowd dug the groove — this is just the kind of ’70s style music Japanese kids seem to like, and while the volume and hardness of attack came and went, the melodic impact never wavered. A few people were even dancing, though Jay Som doesn’t play what you would normally call dance music. More like sway music. And every so often there was nice soaring guitar line to add that requisite rock rush. It must get real crowded in that bedroom sometime.
Saturday morning opened in much the same way Friday morning did: cloudy and breezy, occasionally windy, in fact. By the time Tempalay began their 11:30 a.m. set at the Red Marquee a huge crowd had set up camp in and around the shed, making it rather difficult to find even a good standing spot from which to watch the group, though, in truth, what you ended up watching was the band in silhouette against a screen of clever and often disturbing videos. The music was anything but disturbing, though maybe it was meant to be.
Tempalay’s raucous R&B has a jerry-rigged quality that makes you wonder if the song they’re playing is going to fall apart at any moment. The mind-frying “Sonic Wave” is cued to nursery rhyme couplets that bleed over into rap, while the purposely sloppy guitar lines challenge the assumption that this is some kind of earnest jam. At one point, in fact, things did fall apart and the band had to take a break to deal with an unexplained technical issue, thus giving them an opportunity to joke with the audience about the administration of Fuji Rock and their own very small part in making it a wonderful festival — or something like that. (They emerged from the Rookie A Go Go Stage in 2015)
Which is to say, Tempalay works to subvert logic. vocalist-guitarist Ryoto Ohara’s playful falsetto is the only really emotional tool in their sonic armory, most of which is aimed squarely at the funny bone. In interviews the band says they want to make the audience at least a little uncomfortable, and I’m not sure they succeeded on Saturday morning. Nobody left during the set, and after it was over, smiles were all you saw.
Kathy Yaeji Lee, who goes by her given Korean name as an artist, was clearly happy to be at the Red Marquee a bit after midnight. It was her first show in Japan and despite the almost narcotic quality of her brand of house music, she exuded excitement, prowling the stage and sing-speaking, sometimes even whispering, her personal stories about being a Korean-American woman in the 21st century.
Since it was raining, the venue was probably more crowded than it would have been otherwise, and the hushed quality of the audience’s attention was almost creepy, as if they’d been hypnotized. And there is only so much Yaeji can do with her unusual sound unless she breaks into dance mode, which she approached but never to the extent that people were going to start moving with any kind of exertion. She successfully brought you into her dream, the effects of which lasted longer than I would have expected. Or maybe I was just sleepy.
As the skies started to really open up, Fuji Rock fixture Gaz Mayall stepped behind the turntables and just happened to have the perfect song. HOW did he KNOW it would actually RAIN? Uncanny.
As the leader of Radiohead, arguably the most influential rock group of the last 20 years, Thom Yorke has both invited expectations and confounded them. His headlining set at the White Stage on Friday seemed to prove this. It seemed odd that his set was sparsely attended at first, though after the Chemical Brothers finished their own set over at the Green Stage, the audience swelled appreciably. And yet, no one displayed a particular compelling interest in what Yorke was doing. They were fascinated, but also perplexed.
Yorke is a god of technology. He uses his musical interests to further the form, and his fans indulge this pretense. For the first half of the performance, Yorke was absorbed in the process of making difficult music, clearly acting out on stage, spinning about, dancing ecstatically, playing his bass while co-conspirator Nigel Godrich made good on his musical ideas. There was no drummer, but somehow the pair made a rhythmic pulse that permeated the audience. We were transfixed, even if we didn’t know why.
No one would mistake the Yorke show for a Radiohead performance, though I Imagine that a few attendants may have been expecting as much. It was fluid and startling, anti-pop that made good on the prospect that pop would survive.
While I was walking to the Chemical Brothers set at the Green Stage, a lot of people passed me, apparently upset that they might miss the opening notes. Some were running, but an equal number were skipping, obviously delighted at the prospect of seeing their idols.
Though I have not positive evidence, I would surmise that the Chemical Brothers have headlined the Green Stage more than any other artist, and while it would seem that over-exposure would diminish their chances, in Japan, and specifically at Fuji Rock, the exposure has only intensified their popularity, and it’s easy to see why.
Their specific style of dance music is custom built for huge fields, expansive and large-bodied, and the crowd was pumping and jumping for most of their two hour set. It’s odd. Fridays are often the odd man out at Fuji, but today was packed.
Some said it was Thom Yorke, who followed the Chemicals at the White Stage, but they weren’t that many people when Yorke’s set started. The Chemicals were the draw, and for the most obvious of reasons: They met people’s expectations in the past, and were sure to do so this time as well.
Though hardly a homecoming, Mitski’s headlining show at the Red Marquee on Friday acknowledged her Japanese heritage, even if she mostly grew up overseas and sings exclusively in English. After her third song, she finally addressed the audience in Japanese, in a way that sounded predetermined, as if it were part of a script for the show itself. Though I felt nothing myself, I could feel a chill settle over the room.
But Mitski is chilly by default. Her particular brand of indie pop is predicated on the sexual breakup and heartache that follows, and while her lyrics are blunt and expressive, they portray a personality that over-thinks romance. During the performance, she was often sitting at a desk-table, as if interviewing or being interviewed for a job. Her gestures were grand and quite suggestive: she was essentially borrowing show biz tropes from classic R&B, laying out seductively on the table, shifting her hips, raising her arms in spasmodic ecstasy, even while she sang about some guy who had gutted her with his insincerity.
The music was often both exciting and off-putting, but never boring or staid. “I’m not wearing my usual lipstick,” she sang as she kicked up her heels. She wanted you to want her, but it was still all an act.
And while the audience was definitely intrigued, they couldn’t get past the facade, which was deliberate and performative. It wasn’t until the end of the set, when the music became more conventionally rockfish and Mitski seemed more at ease that she opened up, admitting in Japanese that she didn’t really know what day it was. That’s the life of the performer, and you could hear the crowd release a collective sigh of empathy.
It’s pretty standard for an R&B singer to go through a slew of costume changes during a performance, and during her hour-long set at the Green Stage Janelle Monae did a slew of them. But there was a definitely thematic pattern: from Nutcracker-like military drag to African monarch to embodiment of female sexual agency there was method to her sartorial madness, and as in the great tradition of the soul revue everything flowed from one song to another. Monae’s computer sex metaphors and robotic dance moves notwithstanding, it was a thoroughly human show, steeped in black-queer consciousness and a wry understanding of the theatrical.
“I’m tired of Republicans telling me how to feel,” she said at the end of a particularly potent rap-rant, underscoring her need to be in the moment, and she was definitely cognizant of Fuji’s charms, effusing about the fact that we was not just in Japan at last, but that she was in this “magical place,” which wasn’t just a reference to the green mountain in front of her, but the hordes of people holding their cell phones aloft, creating that canopy of stars she sang about. “Love is light,” she said, before breaking in “Electric Lady,” a singalong with maybe the easiest chorus in the world, but it said something that the crowd raised their collective voice in tribute. Monae, it should be pointed out, has one of the most infectious smiles in show biz.
“Memories are tiny, but then they are stacked on each other,” she said in a way to express how this performance would become part of the fabric of her life. During “Pynk” she flaunted her feminine queerness in no uncertain terms and demanded afterwards that marginalized people be allowed their happiness (which seemed dependent, she stated, on Trump’s impeachment).
But she didn’t forget what people were there for and did “”The Way You Make Me Feel” by her mentor, Prince, and finished up with a JB-worthy rendition of “Tight Rope” that had approximately 23 different endings. I looked around and saw everyone dancing, but especially women. She was theirs.
The estimable, prolific Aussie garage band had a rude awakening on their first-ever Asian tour. This week, in addition to their Fuji Rock appearance at the White Stage, their first ever in Japan, they were supposed to play the Jisan Rock Festival in South Korea, but the whole festival was cancelled at the last minute. The fact that KG&TLW were the only major foreign act on the roster may give you some indication why it was cancelled.
More for us, I guess, and the most surprising thing about the Gizzards live is that they don’t come across anything like a garage band, or even a psychedelic outfit, another qualifier that tends to get attached to their work. They’re essentially a metal band, but a metal band with the narrowest metal priorities. Even when they take the piss, it often seems as if they feel obligated to do so. “Turn it up Sammy,” guitarist Joey Walker said as they opened up with a killer speed metal riff that abruptly stopped and turned into something else — but on a dime, mind you.
The fact that the Wizards didn’t dip into their vast psych-folk-experimental well and concentrated just on headbangers shows they know their audience, and the already sizable crowd kept growing as passers by glommed onto the fun under a slate grey sky. But this was serious fun. The band sports two drummers, which is automatically cool, but there’s none of that Dead-Allmans contrapuntal bullshit. They played in lockstep, and while the patterns were sometimes complicated their main purpose was force and precision. The bass player stands behind them, obviously afraid he’ll miss something. The three guitarists were not exactly hot stuff, but they knew how to play against each other. What they dig about metal is that mensch-like attention to the smallest detail. Stu Mackenzie’s stentorian vocals fit the music to a T, and while the visual aesthetic is a scruffy bunch of high schoolers, they learned their lessons only too well.
It wasn’t until the last song, the iconic “There Is No Planet B” that the Lizards singular sense of humor finally made itself felt. The song was heavy metal heaven with a shot of prof-rockfish elan. And the sound was absolutely stellar. What garage band goes for high fidelity? Nice job, Sammy.
Maybe it was jet lag, but during her various non-musical interactions with the audience during her Red Marquee performance, R&B singer Sabrina Claudio made it clear she thought it was after dark, even though her set started at 2 p.m. I mean, the Red Marquee is a bit murky, but not that murky.
“It’s an honor to be here tonight,” she said, and the prodded the audience to exude more “energy,” which seemed a tall order considered that it was nigh on nap time and Claudio’s brief is slow jams — the slower and slinkier, the better. She even had the gall to try out new songs on us! (To be fair, the crowd in general didn’t seem familiar with her work.) Still, while her attempt to make contact was a bit on the awkward side it was greatly appreciated. Japanese music fans just love the personal touch.
The South London post-punk quintet Shame seemed an ill fit for the Red Marquee, especially at lunch time, though something might be said for watching the band do their singular thing on an empty stomach. The music is lean and uncompromising, punchy with melody and rhythmic breaks that feel like trap doors being released. It was their first trip to Fuji and the band seemed more stoked at the prospect than the crowd was — at the beginning, anyway. Once the group got going there was no question they were glad they came.
Charlie Steen is the kind of vocalist who looks as if he’d punch you out one minute and then turn around and buy you a pint the next. He was aggressive about the audience being into the music, which is sort of gauche for post-punk acts. When the band got wound up he was all elbows and swinging fists, though he couldn’t hold a candle in the manic energy department to bass player Josh Finerty, a short bloke who — in true Angus Young style — seemed to be everywhere at once. In fact, the stage really wasn’t big enough for the band, which needs room to act out their cynical political rags. If the drummer wasn’t obliged to stay behind his kit he probably would have been jumping into the audience.
As the pace quickened and the songs gathered force, the audience pressed forward until the band and the crowd were practically one. Steen was in his element, punk Christ-like, bare-chested, aching for a drink probably. He seemed genuinely touched by the Japanese crowd’s obvious boost in interest and took advantage of it. In a way, I was actually glad they didn’t do their version of “Rock Lobster,” whose louche dance style would have put a kibosh on what had turned out to be a primo rock show in the classic sense. Just watch out for those elbows.
Day One proper dawned sunny and breezy, the dampness on the grass the only indication of the previous night’s rain. The weather forecast for the weekend leans toward the positive, but everyone knows what that’s worth. Still, positivity is what the festival is about. There were long lines from the camp ground to get across the bridge to the festival entrance, and owing to the unfortunate fact that the bridge is the main conduit between the festival and the Prince Hotel, it was very slow going, but no one cut the line, no one complained.
Those killers in kilts, the Red Hot Chilli Pipers expanded on their pre-festival set with even more positivity, running through their repertoire of big, emotive rock covers that, in fact, tended to center on positivity (“This Is Me,” “Don’t Stop Believin’”), and played for a full hour, which is not always the case for the festival’s opening act. But this is exactly the mood you want people to be in at the start of three-day bacchanalia — pumped and ready for anything. The field was packed and rocking, totally happy with familiar songs from an unfamiliar band that counts on its novelty element — three bagpipers — to get people interested. With this crowd, you put 2 Queen songs in your set and you’ve got friends for life. Nothing new or startling. Just giving people what they want at 11 in the morning.
The 2019 Fuji Rock Festival officially kicked off at 8 p.m. on Thursday night with the big fireworks display. Up until that point it was the usual fare: bon odori followed by a lottery drawing. The folks on hand could attend for free, because that’s the way Fuji rolls on the night before the actual festival starts. It’s supposed to be a celebration in appreciation of the local folks, but over the years it’s turned into something much different. It’s essentially a show of commitment by the Fuji Faithful, those who show up year after year regardless of the headliners or the weather. And this year, the faithful showed up in force. By the time the fireworks started, you could hardly move.
Part of the problem, if you can call it that, was that people to the north of the main platform were exercising their right to sit, in camp chairs, a situation that’s becoming increasingly dense during the festival, but was practically unheard of during the prefest party in the past. Consequently, the line around the food court moved at a snail’s pace. At least people stood up when the fireworks went off.
Of course, everybody moved over to the Red Marquee when the first of the evening’s live acts, the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, did their half hour set. The band, which is essentially an earnest cover band with bagpipers for novelty effect, captivated the audience completely. All bands who deign to play the opening slot at the prefest party are undeniable hits, because those who show up are raring to go; ready to party, and probably drunk enough to make good on that claim. Realistically, it was almost impossible to get even into the tent, the place was so packed. The repertoire was predictable: Journey, Queen, Deep Purple riffs. But with bagpipes substituting for classic guitar lines, how could anyone resist?
And then it finally started raining, though no one seemed to mind, and not just because the majority of punters were inside the tent. “Don’t Stop Believing” and “We Will Rock You” are pretty bullet proof songs, even on bagpipes. Or maybe I should say water proof?
It promises to be a great weekend.
We’ve seen the worst of times and the best of times at Fuji Rock. And we’ve been more than a few times. So here are some tips, both musical and practical from Philip Brasor, Elliott Samuels, Mark Thompson and Alyssa I. Smith.
Also, make sure you’ve gone down the FRF survival checklist. Sure, the selection of amenities sold at the camping site and on the festival grounds has improved over the years, but it’s also likely they’ll be considerably more expensive … so save yourself the hassle and the yen by planning ahead.
- ES: The Comet is Coming: It’s possible The Cure may indeed end up playing for three hours to close the festival as it did back in 2013, but this electrifying electronic jazz trio could actually be as epoch-ending as its name suggests …
- ES: Khruangbin: No one knows exactly how to pronounce its name, but this trio from Houston, Texas, produces psychedelic grooves that takes its influences from places as diverse as Thailand, Afghanistan and Iran. It’s like crate digging without a record player.
- ES: Vaudou Game: This where the party starts. Think James Brown meets Fela Kuti and throw in some 1970s funk from Togo, Benin and Nigeria for good measure. This Afrofunk outfit is playing twice on Sunday and so you’ve really got no excuse to miss its infectious jams.
- PB: King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard: Wigged-out psychedelic garage rock from Australia that’s way cooler than you, though they may not look it.
- PB: Janelle Monae: She dances! She sings! She raps! She acts in movies! She may even have sex with robots, but in any case she’s the biggest star at this year’s fest even if she isn’t a headliner, and her stage show is just that side of mind-blowing.
- MT: Yaeji: Will the weather be in sync with “raingurl”? At least, Red Marquee has a roof.
- MT: Shibusashirazu Orchestra: A surrealist troupe of gypsies par excellence. How many musicians and dancers they’ll pack on to the stage this year is anyone’s guess.
- MT: Chemical Brothers: They never fail not to fill space in front of the Green Stage with the block-rockin’ beats. Since you don’t really need to see them pump their fists in the air from up close, probably best viewed from on top of the hill, for the full visual spectacle.
- MT: Jim West: Spinner of rare vinyl guaranteed it put you back in the groove. You’ll find him almost every night at Blue Galaxy’s DJ tent.
- MT: Takkyu Ishino: Alas, it might be awhile before we see Pierre onstage for Denki Groove, at least we have half.
Blast from the past
- ES: The Cure: Even if you’ve already sat through every single song these goth icons have ever produced at their headline performance in 2013, we’re talking about a line-up of glorious tormented stadium rock melodies that are a perfect final curtain call for a Fuji Rock Sunday on the Green Stage.
- PB: The Waterboys: Mike Scott’s albums are not quite as effortlessly soulful as they were back in the early ‘90s, but his live shows never flag, and with Japan as his new second home, the Scottish-Irish troubadour should be in his element.
- MT: Cake: “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”
Call us curious
- MT: Sia: Will she even be on the stage?
- MT: Daito Manabe: Probably better known for his video/electronic art.
- MT: Matador! Soul Sounds: Offshoots of The New Mastersounds and Soulive. Sure to make it funky.
- ES: Thom Yorke: Having not followed much of the Radiohead frontman’s solo work, his recently released third album, “Anima,” sounds almost like noise that has been deconstructed and reassembled into someone’s never-ending nightmare. The final track on the album’s even called “Impossible Knots,” which sounds like a painful mind-bending experience if we’ve ever heard one.
- PB: DYGL: This Anglophone Japanese rock quartet comes across on record as being sly and capable but somehow subdued. If they loosen up, it could be very good.
- PB: The Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band: The name sounds like a ringer, but this Thai group reportedly plays club jazz and funk on traditional instruments. Color me intrigued.
- MT: Pizzeria La locanda del pittore Iwappara
- MT: Sours at Tokoro Tengoku as you dip your feet/head in the river
- MT: Coffee at Field of Heaven
- ES: Hang out at the Blue Galaxy DJ tent near the international food court/bar between the Red Marquee and Green Stage. If you’re lucky, you might even find an empty chair nearby.
- ES: Drag yourself all the way to the area near the Café de Paris when you’re feeling like you need a break. Featuring random buskers, activities such as 10-pin bowling and slacklines, AND Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, it offers a true oasis to escape the musical intensity when you need to.
- MT: Fully charged portable battery charger and all the right cables. There are a few charging stations near stages, but who wants to waste time?
- ES: A pocket flashlight. You really don’t know what you’re missing until you can’t see anything at all.
- PB: Small towels for whatever. Band-aids.
- AS: A folding chair so you’re guaranteed a comfortable place to sit even when the ground gets muddy. Something light and easy to pack.
- AS: A hat. Handy for any kind of weather, rain or shine.
- MT: Factor in the fact that unless that you’re staying near the festival entrance, you’ll gonna need at least one bar of energy to walk back to your bed/futon/sleeping bag. Alternatively, you could just pass out the Palace of Wonder.
- ES: If you do decide to choose rain boots over other forms of footwear (the perennial Fuji Rock conundrum), slip some comfy sole supports into the bottom of them. After standing for much of the day, your feet will certainly thank you for them.
- PB: Heineken is the official beer vendor, but it’s worth waiting until you get to the Field of Heaven or further for a brew, since they have some craft beer stands out that way. Also, in the World Food Court there are British beers.
A full weekend of shows spread across multiple stages: Sounds fun (and it is) but it’s no walk in the park. There was the extreme weather to contend with. Blustering typhoon winds and rain, creating pools of slippery mud, one day, then blistering sun and dust clouds the next.
And because there are so many of you, invariably you had to line up for food, a beer, the toilet, the next stage. You had to jockey and jostle to get a seat or a spot in the front of your favorite band.
But you persevered and got what you came for, be it the stellar performances of guest musicians or just a chance to fly your freak flag for a weekend.
You sang, you danced, you moshed, you jumped, you cheered, and you invariably got told what a wonderful audience you were.
See you again next year?
By now, a lot of people know Chai, a quartet of young Japanese women who dress in matching pink outfits and act about 10 years younger than they are . . . and they’re already very young. The band made a name for itself overseas before it gained much traction in Japan, but it’s not clear if this career move was planned by management or the band itself. We tend to think it’s the former, but after seeing Superorganism’s precocious performance earlier this weekend, we can’t be sure.
In any case, the band acquitted itself nightly during a 30-minute set at Sunday midnight at the Red Marquee, zipping through a catalogue that was eclectic without being surprising. What was surprising is how funky this team could get with such simple musical tools. Lead singer and keyboard maven Mana kept the chirp up as best she could, though toward the end her regular register poked through while thanking the audience for all their support. We hear the band has great prospects for the future, and we hope that isn’t the gimmick talking, but these days it’s so hard to tell.