Prefest is best

For once, the rain in Tokyo didn’t intrude on Naeba. When we left the capital in the early afternoon it was pouring and rained most of the way up to Niigata Prefecture. As we climbed the winding roads up to the festival grounds, the rain became more intense, but as soon as we surmounted the hump it was dry–overcast, but dry.

The pre-festival party is free to everyone. It’s sort of a thank you gift to the locals, but a long time ago it just became an integral part of the festival. For some reason they cut the bon odori dance this year, opting instead for a raffle (tickets were given out at the entrance to anyone who passed through). It was sort of cheesy. It was also packed, as if the party had already started and everyone who was going to be here was already here.


The fireworks didn’t have to compete with the rain or mist this year. Though it was overcast, the hanabi came through clear, even if the emcees on the stage at the center of the Oasis seemed hard put to get the crowd excited. After all this time you could call them jaded. They were already settled into their festival faces, happy, slightly drunk, itching to be impressed.


Con Brio, the San Francisco soul-funk outfit was maybe the best Prefest opener I’ve seen here since Danko Jones more than 10 years ago, and for the same reason. The audience didn’t know them and that itch to be impressed was thoroughly scratched. Lead singer Ziek McCarter shimmied and slid across the stage as the six-piece backup churned a greasy soul stew that ust became more intense during the half hour they commanded the stage. Festival regular Koichi Hanafusa introduced them by trying to find out how many in the packed Red Marquee had been there for the first Fuji Rock 20 years ago. Not many, you can imagine, and hardly anyone cared. The great thing about Con Brio was that they made you appreciate the moment all the more. Screw those memories. Live for today and raise your hand.

FKA Twigs: Performance art

Given how short a time she’s been in the public consciousness, FKA Twigs headlining appearance at the White Stage Sunday night was quite a phenomenon. And judging from the thin turnout, obviously the decision to headline her was premature.

It’s understandable. Despite her cutting-edge reputation among critics, Twigs has yet to appeal to a wider fan base.

FKA Twigs

FKA Twigs | Mark Thompson photo

Even in concert, it’s difficult to gauge the sort of emotional impact she’s supposed to make. Much of her act is dancing, in a fluid, abstract sort of way. Her singing is uniformly falsetto, copying an R&B model that’s mainly male. Still, the vibe is overtly sexual, but the live act was predicated on art performance.

FKA Twigs

FKA Twigs | Mark Thompson photo

There was almost no interaction with the band. It was just Twigs and the audience, who were polite but reserved. At the end of the set, she made a point of thanking the crowd for “supporting” her, though we’re not sure what that means. Is she actually making money in Japan? That would be quite surprising.

Shoka Okuba Blues Project: Tough stuff

We were sitting near the Gypsy Avalon stage early in the evening when we heard a curious sound coming from the stage itself. It was the sound check for the next band, which we weren’t familiar with. But the sound was so intriguing we felt obligated to check it out.

It was a band called the Shoka Okuba Blues Project, a Japanese power trio headed by the titular guitar player, a woman who dressed like a typical Japanese ojosan (proper young lady) in high heels and short skirts, However, she plays a mean blues guitar and can sing with equal proficiency.

Intrigued, we returned to the stage at the time the band were scheduled to appear and were subsequently blown away. It’s not just that Okubo smashes the stereotype of the wilting Japanese woman. In a sense she upholds it; it’s just that she also subverts it with her version of the polite young woman with a real life. It wan’t just blues. It was classic rock and a little reggae and some metal. Okubo slashed and strummed to beat the band, and the audience, perhaps perplexes by this cognitive dissonance, didn’t know what to make of it. We did, however, and grooved accordingly.

This next song is called Girl On Girl. Don’t try to Google it.

Jenny Lewis

Ryan Adams: Redemption

We didn’t see the last time Ryan Adams played Fuji, but we heard he was slightly pissed. Not sure why, but in any case his situation wasn’t helped by the fact that press photographers were limited in what they could shoot and there was an announcement before the set at the Red Marquee saying that flash photos from the audience would be a serious problem.

None of these rock star prerogatives made much of an impact on the show. Adams, who is prolific and somewhat contrarian, delivered a classic rock concert, one where guitar histrionics and heartfelt conviction went hand in hand. At first he seems strangely oblivious to the circumstances, wearing a leather jacket in a tent that was smoldering due to the sun. No one held it against him, and his blend of alt-country and classic rock eventually sucked in people who might not have know who he was in the first place but nevertheless knew what they liked.

So even the slower, more sentimental songs made an impact, thanks to Adams’ realization that he was making a difference, at least for the moment. Every subsequent song drew a more emotional response, and by the time he ended on a purely rock number, the audience was in his hands. He didn’t even seem to fathom it. He stood on a monitor and did the rock star thing in a darkened shed. What could be more cliche? But the audience wouldn’t leave. They wanted more as the crew came out to remove the equipment. They were still clapping when I walked away. 

Jenny Lewis: You can call me Lewis

During her late afternoon show at the Red Marquee, Jenny Lewis, late of power pop behemoth Rilo Kiley, related about her first trip to Fuji some years ago, a show we saw and loved, though it was a strange one. Lewis, a solid rock act, played as the first act of one of the late night shows, which is usually reserved for techno/dance artists or out-of-there indie acts. What happened is that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was supposed to play but cancelled and Lewis was hire to fill in. As we remember only a handful of people showed up, but she delivered fully. 

There was a much larger crowd for this, her first legitimate Fuji show, thought it wasn’t what you would call a sellout. She related the earlier story, misremembering the band’s name as Clap Your Hands Say Hi, but the crowd hardly cared. 

Jenny Lewis
Jenny Lewis | Mark Thompson photo

Jenny (“you can call me Lewis”) plays an earthy form of Americana that connects directly on an emotional level, and the audience succumbed to her obvious charms. Whether she was playing country or soul or pure power pop–she did a killer version of Rilo KIley’s “Bad News” — she made good on her reputation as a soulful singer and a forceful personality.
Her band was aces, especially in the vocal department. 

She finished the show not with a bang but with a whimper and received the kind of ovation usually reserved for guitar freakouts. Playing “Acid Tongue” on acoustic guitar with all her bandmates only adding choir like choral backup, she floored the audience. It take a big person to pull off a ballad as a finale. 

Todd Rundgren: A true star

We arrived about a minute late for Todd Rundgren’s set on the White Stage and wondered if we were in the wrong place or whether or not Rundgren cancelled. There was a hip-hop DJ on stage playing classic rap and R&B. Then, he suddenly started yelling at the crowd. “Put your hands together for Todd Rundgren!”

And out he came, with two female dancers dressed as anime characters. Potbellied and balding (but what’s left of his hair frosted), he didn’t seem to care about the impression he made, but nevertheless word skin tight pants and a sleeveless T-Shirt. He was a modern star, or at least his sardonic version of one.

And for the next hour he but on a real show, one with strong songs and singing, and even choreography that he joined in with in his own feeble way. If the crowd had come for the hits they would have been disappointed, but they weren’t. Most of the material was from his new album “State,” which is electro-pop, with lyrics that, per Rundgren’s mission, tend to be zeitgeisty, with mentions of Miley Cyrus’s ass and the Internet age. But it wasn’t gratuitous grandstanding. If anything, the words were secondary to the music, which Rundgren has always been fussy about. The audience fell for it.

Of course, there had to be at least one hit, and after the four left the stage, the DJ came out again and incited the crowd, which was on its way out. They returned for “One Dream,” the only song approaching a hit, and a nice showcase for a guitar solo. Some things just don’t change. 

Bloodest Saxophone: Ultimate R&B

Despite its awkward name, Bloodest Saxophone is very specific about its musical aims. An old-fashioned R&B rhythm and horn section, they play pretty much anything that swings, from blues to cocktail jazz to boogie woogie, and with an emphasis on the woogie, so to speak. They don’t seem to touch anything that can’t be milked for maximum sexual feeling.

The band’s afternoon gig at the Field of Heaven opened with three instrumentals that touched all the bases, from slow, greasy blues to big band Louis Jordan swing to “Tequila.” The capacity crowd was primed for the girl singer.

Jewel Brown is a veteran, one of those old school vocalists whose conversational approach aligns with any R&B style that’s available. On in years, she spent the entire set seated in front of a music stand with the lyrics for reference, but nothing could dampen her ardor, neither old age nor the heat. She was constantly preaching, getting the band–all Japanese players – and the crowd, to “pick it up,” “get it moving,” and “slowing it down a bit,” as the case may be.

It might have been more appropriate to watch such a swinging, rocking (or “rolling,” a word Brown used quite a bit) show in a smokey night club or auditorium, but Heaven was perfect, and the old gal obviously enjoyed every minute of it. We did too. 

Whither Orange Court?

Mark Thompson photo

The current state of the former Orange Court. In the distance is the Cafe de Paris and an amusement area featuring buskers, a drum circle, and bowling alley.


Let’s hear it for [company name] who kindly lent us these amps. We can’t afford our own.

Jim O’Rourke


When we first saw Jim O’Rourke’s name on the Fuji roster it was attached to someone named Gaman Gilberto, which we naively assumed was some sort of Brazilian collaborator – O’Rourke doing bossa nova is hardly a novel idea. Actually, it’s the name of his backing band, all Japanese musicians. “Gaman” is Japanese for “patience” or “fortitude.”

O’Rourke has lived in Japan for the past decade-plus and seems appropriately acclimatized. His music hasn’t change drastically, though in a sense it has regressed to a kind of nostalgia for ‘70s singer-songwriters. Still, his noon set at the Field of Heaven was full of quirk, starting with his getup. Gnomish in his favorite soft hat, baggy jeans, carework shirt and full beard liberally streaked with gray, he was the anti-rock star, a sensibility confirmed a little story he told at one point in his shaky but serviceable Japanese about how drummers in the 80s always wore the same thing on stage and he hated it.

Though the songs were conventionally structured, O’Rourke expanded them with long introductions and coda that adhered to the ‘90s indie dynamic template of soft-loud-soft-loud ad infinitum. Some of the grooves were so strong as to threaten the equilibrium of the ensemble, who couldn’t quite keep up with their leaders volume choices. And the quieter passages were so delicate you could hear O’Rourke breathing. As for the singing, he was in key (not a small feat given the thrust of the songs) and could belt like a bluesmaster. 

Txarango: Feet first

Txarango is a Catalan band that’s proud of their roots. They sing in their native language and made a point of teaching the large Sunday morning crowd at the White Stage a few useful phrases, one of which wasn’t “dance your ass off,” because no one needed to be told that. With a healthy complement of horns and a lead singer whose energy level belied the scorching sun overhead, Txarango dips into rock, ska, gypsy party music, all infused with an Iberian regard for rhythm and melody. We’re not sure if it’s a good idea to get yourself so worked up at the beginning of a day that threatens to be hot and dry, but isn’t that why you come to Fuji in the first place? 

Deadmau5: Kicking a dead mouse

The DJ-dance guy known as Deadmau5 went on just after the sun set, when the sky was still a deep blue in the west, behind the Green Stage. Our experience with this sort of big beat electronic dance music has mostly been at the Red Marquee in the middle of the night, so the timing seemed a little strange. And as the guy in the creepy mouse head hit his second or third climax we wondered if any of the thousands of people in the vast field jumping up and down could explain to us what made Deadmau5 better than any of those other beep-boop-beep-beep DJs, because we know he gets paid a truckload of money for one of these gigs. We won’t deny how effective he is at getting people to move, but there isn’t a whole lot of nuance to what he does. 

Work it out

While deadmau5 shook the trees around the Green Stage with chesthumping doofdoof, the DJs at Jim Vinyl Nasuim found a simpler way to make us dance.

We’re in the mood for ska

The Man
Mark Thompson photo

The foundations of the Naeba Shokudo are shaken nightly after the Green Stage shuts down. And every night you are guaranteed a bands that have no problem getting up-close and personal with their fans. Aside from the keyboardist and drummer, every member of ska powerhouse The Man took a stroll through the crowd while playing. And they blew the roof off the mother. 

Lost & found

You could fill the love at Saturday evening’s Belle & Sebastian show and Stewart Murdoch could do no wrong, rocking his new threads, purchased in haste after his luggage was lost in transit. His said his new shoes hurt but when you have fans this adoring and perform so perfectly, he could have worn a striped tank top and sweat pants, and we still wouldn’t care. 

Galactic: Funky, Spacey

For reasons that haven’t been explained but are probably easy to guess, the scheduling is a lot looser this year, so there isn’t a lot of overlap of shows from one stage to the next.

We were keen to catch New Orleans modern funk ensemble Galactic at the Field of Heaven on Sunday night, which means we missed Muse on the main stage, but there wasn’t anyone playing at White until well after 10.

Galactic played a trio of instrumentals to open. Greasy, spacey stuff, highlighted by a trombone player who was so fast you could barely keep up with him.

Then their special guest, Macy Gray, came out in a silver evening gown and a fake feather boa, accompanied by two backup singers. Macy’s pretty spacey, too, and though her own brand of soul music is more urban than Galactic’s usual fare, it was an excellent pairing, and the crowd immediately responded. Like the best shows at Heaven, the audience and the artist locked into a mutual groove that only intensified as the set continued, even when Macy was off stage. 


Super Furry Animals: Animal logic

Super Furry Animals
Super Furry Animals | Mark Thompson photo

Maybe it’s just because they’re from Wales and occasionally sing in Welsh, but Super Furry Animals has cultivated an oddball reputation that non-fans may not be able to appreciate.

Under a party cloudy sky at dusk, with gentle cool breezes wafting over a filled field, the group played the White Stage with an insouciance that was probably partly put-on. Gruff Rhys sings in a slightly off-key monotone punctuated by rock singer effusions that sound like non sequiturs. Dressed in identical white Hazmat suits they gave the impression that their music was toxic. Actually, it was anodyne, smooth, unhurried, unexcited.

Super Furry Animals
Super Furry Animals | Mark Thompson photo

Rhys brought out cards with Japanese writing on them to direct the audience to applaud whenever necessary. It usually wasn’t necessary. A lot people not only knew when to applause, but they knew the lyrics, too.

The songs became more intense but no more animated at the concert proceeded. They ended by leaving the stage for a short spell while electronics ran on a loop and then returned dressed as…super furry animals. No, really. And the audience loved it. It pays to be Welsh.

Super Furry Animals
Super Furry Animals | Mark Thompson photo

Twenty One Pilots: High flying

Twenty One Pilots
Twenty One Pilots | Mark Thompson photo

It’s difficult to pin down the two-man band called Twenty One Pilots. They took the White Stage a little after 4 in horror show costumes to a hardcore stomp. Was this a death metal band? Well, only for a song, but it’s one of the group’s hallmarks that whatever style of music they’re playing they make a point of playing it very well. With his neck and hands smeared with greasy soot, lead singer Tyler Joseph certainly looked like an art rocker, but his smooth transitions from piano to ukulele to bass and back again betrayed a more rounded musical education. Meanwhile, drummer Josh Dun, tattooed and burly with prominent red circles painted under his eyes, provided both a solid backbeat and a visual foil.

Twenty One Pilots
Twenty One Pilots | Mark Thompson photo

It’s almost saying too little to mention that no two songs sounded alike: hip-hop, reggae, dub, even Elton John style piano rock. And as the opening dramaturgy showed, Joseph knows how to engineer theatricality to the show’s advantage.

Twenty One Pilots
Twenty One Pilots | Mark Thompson photo

Obviously, there was a contingent of people who were already fans because they knew the lyrics, but it’s also safe to say the the two men just added a few hundred more. It was one of those rare instances where you could sense a wonderful discovery being made. Come to think of it, that’s one of Fuji Rock’s most salient features.