Chai: A little kawaii goes a long way

Chai
Chai | Mark Thompson photos

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.

Chvrches: Getting in the last word

Chvrches
Chvrches | Mark Thompson photos

As far as Scottish bands go, Chvrches is rather strict. They tend toward a pure pop sound that doesn’t countenance any lo-fi sloppiness. Their late night set at the White Stage effectively closed out the weekend, since they came on stage after Vampire Weekend went off of the Green Stage. Naturally, there was a surge of people for the show, since there was nowhere else to go, but politeness held sway and there was little stress with regards to settling everyone who showed up,

Chvrches

Lead singer Lauren Mayberry seemed to think that nobody knew who they were, even though they’d played Fuji before. “Did anyone ever see us before?” she asked, as if puzzled by all the people who showed up. The music was pleasant synthpop burnished by the members’ longtime experience as professionals in other bands. I liked the songs without necessarily thinking I wanted to hear them again. It was the moment that mattered.

Vampire Weekend: Sunday night exorcism

Mark Thompson photos

Now that we think of it, it was a good idea for the festival to slot headliner Bob Dylan in the penultimate position on Sunday night. Dylan’s dusty set, though exciting and satisfying, didn’t actually fulfill the main task of a headlining slot, which is to send the audience home with a feeling that they’d experienced something profound and energizing. Dylan mostly just satisfied people’s expectations.

Vampire Weekend, on the other hand, got people to dance, and it was gratifying to see the field in front of the Green Stage shimmy and shake to VW’s Africanized indie rock. Though every bit as conceptual as Dirty Projectors, VW is dedicated to the idea that indie rock has to be fun first, and the revamped version of the band that closed the weekend on the Green Stage hit high point after high point, as if they were a jam band looking for the sweet spot.

They were also suitably relaxed. Leader Ezra Koenig wore shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt, commenting that they had prepared to play in the rain and so it was a pleasant surprise that they didn’t have to. The audience was just grateful for a chance to boogie on dry ground, but, truthfully, didn’t seem to know how to react when Danielle Haim of Haim came out and joined the band for a version of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.” It’s not exactly the kind of song that one would find in VM’s wheelhouse.

Dirty Projectors: Headliner material

Mark Thompson photos

As American indie bands go, Dirty Projectors are perhaps too perfectly conceived. Leader David Longstreth, a Yale graduate, has always taken popular music very seriously, to the point that one of his first projects was a musical study of the work of Don Henley. His music has always been complicated and challenging, even if his subjects are strange.

At the Red Marquee on Sunday, in a slot that immediately followed the Dylan show, Longstreth and his freshly reconfigured mates made a stab at being geniune headliners, the kind who can hold an audience and entertain them. And for the most part they succeeded. The songs built up a head of steam that made for a real rock show, and the audience, who didn’t always seem to be familiar with the material, nevertheless went along with the plan and came out the other end genuinely entertained.

Bob Dylan: A hard catalogue’s gonna fall

Mark Thompson photo

It was perhaps indicative of what was expected of Bob Dylan at Fuji Rock that he was slotted not last, but rather as the penultimate act of the last day. Some might have thought he needed an early bedtime, given his age. Some others speculated that Smash wanted him to play during dusk, a risky proposition considering the weather. As it happened, the weather was exquisite. As to whether Dylan performed to the task is a matter of conjecture.

In any case, he actually started early, about four minutes early, with “Things Have Changed.” He stood at the piano and pounded out the chords to the dirge-like composition, turning it as best he could into a rock song. This was, he obviously realized, a “rock” festival.

He remained at the piano for the whole show, never once picking up a guitar. Nobody seemed to mind, though quite a few folks reacted viscerally when Dylan tooted on his harmonica.

But, in fact, he did play rock songs, or, at least adapted his deep catalogue to rock tropes.  He did a few blues numbers that were reconfigured as rock songs, The only two folk songs he did were “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Blowing in the Wind,” but he rendered them as soft rock concoctions, piano based. “Highway 61” was cool but no longer essential.

The most animated he got was on “Desolation Row,” which was changed into an R&B tune. His version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” made famous by the Band, was almost incomprehensible, what with all the mumbling, and the sound booth didn’t bother to correct it. Does everyone in Japan know the words?

In the end, Dylan’s set was professional without being particularly exciting. The Jumbotron crew never took their camera off Dylan, an insult to the fine musicians who play with him. The fact that a lot of people, including myself, knew the titles of all the songs he played only goes to prove we probably know too much.

Dylan is in an enviable position. He’s got a huge back catalogue that everyone knows. He can play them any way he wants, and that seems to be the whole point of his neverending tour.

serpentwithfeet: The devil you say

serpentwithfeet
serpentwithfeet | Mark Thompson photos

Wise came out dressed head to toe in camo and twirling  a red frill. Considering his name and the color of the frill, the Devil came to mind, and often in Wise’s convoluted lyrics, the idea of redemption is keen, he seems to seek a way out of eternal trouble.

Gay and raised in the church, Wise’s dichotomies are there for everyone to see, and during the set he seemed agitated, as if the act of expressing his feelings through music was blasphemous.


But he was totally relaxed with the audience, playing a form of lounge piano while he told the crowd what a privilege it is to play in Japan. At another point, he said it was “time to get messy,” but the tone and tempos remained subdued throughout. The audience didn’t, however.

Because Wise’s introspective music is so intense, the crowd picked up on his desperation and reacted with uncommon empathy. Several of the quieter numbers even elicited ovations. Wouldn’t have expected that in church.

Kali Uchis: Give me more

The hot new R&B singer Kali Uchis shows a lot of skin, which, of course, is purposed to gain attention to her music. Some might say that’s hardly necessary given the quality of that music, but you do what you’ve got to do. (Ironically, photographers weren’t allowed to shoot this show.)

Her late afternoon set at the White Stage was unusual in that such a sensual performance was scheduled when most people are a little sleepy, or maybe that’s the point: Wake them up, godammit.

We were pretty woke from the beginning, and not just because of the provocative costume. Uchis’s slinky music is commercial candy, the kind of R&B that draws you in with the shamelessness of its purpose. She’s a natural dancer, and given the reaction I would say more people were intrigued by her visual component than were enchanted by her music, but that’s neither here nor there.

She won the crowd over with the sheer appeal of her songwriting whether they knew it or not. The skin and shimmy is just gravy.

Kacey Musgraves: Texas, Japan

We had a hard time deciding whether to attend Andersen.Paak’s show or Kacey Musgraves’, since they occurred at exactly the same time. Though it was raining heavily and we were closer to the Green Stage, we trekked out to the White to catch Musgraves’ set, simply because of her professed love of Japan and that this was her first-ever show here. As a country artist, such gigs are rare and far between.

We weren’t disappointed. It was still raining when the concert started, and the band, dressed rather disconcertingly in matching outfits, shades, and all sporting facial hair (they looked like a batch of Father John Misty clones), took the stage before Musgraves arrived dressed in a mirrored combo bra and miniskirt, covered with a clear plastic raincoat. Her eyelashes were perfect.

A guy in the audience was waving a flag that we first though was North Korean: a comment on American-Trump triumphalism? No, actually it was the state flag of Texas, where Musgraves is from. She appreciated the gesture and followed up that appreciation with “Family is Family,” song about how you can’t renounce your birthright, no matter how inconvenient.

“There are only so many trips around the sun,” she sang in her signature song, “Follow Your Arrow,” which gives creedence to those who don’t adhere to conventional standards. “Does That Make My Crazy” perpetuated this idea even further, with full on rock guitar antics and a throaty vocal from the star. “Can I get a yee-haw?” she asked. No problem.

For her final song she brought out a Japanese dance company dressed as maiko and geisha to give substance to the disco song “Seen Enough.” At that point, no one could refute Musgraves’ love of Japan. Let’s hope there are enough fans around to provide her with a genuine invitation to tour Japan in a more legitimate capacity.

Hinds: From Spain with cuteness and love

It was raining pretty heavily when the Madrid band Hinds took the stage at the Red Marquee, which has a roof. Naturally, punters in the vicinity sought shelter there and the band may have thought they had hit an unexpected goldmine. It’s a common misconception.

Carlotta Cosials, the main singer, sort of knew what was going on. “Even though the rain is falling, can you guys go crazy?” she asked in her high-pitched, heavily accented English. “Are you drinking? Is it too soon?”

Hinds plays a strummy form of indie pop that’s infectious and peppy. Their appeal in Japan has a lot to do with the fact that all the members are women and that they aren’t afraid to fly their freak-cute flag. In fact, the Japanese word Cosials most used during their set was “kawaii.” Fortunately, they are capable of both swinging and grooving, so at least they justified their cute component, even without the advantage of the rain.

King Gnu: Psych for a new age

King Gnu | Mark Thompson photo

The Japanese psychedelic/prog rock quartet King Gnu hit the Red Marquee on the unforgiving Sunday morning slot, when everyone is too busy nursing their hangovers to give a shit about “progressive” music (that’s why they book so many punk bands for that time). But King Gnu can get seriously funky in the David Bowie manner, and when I first showed up I noticed two members playing keyboards, which sort of encouraged me, but later I found that one of them doubles on guitar.

Note to record companies: more double keyboard bands please.

Princess Nokia: Straight outta New York

Mark Thompson photos

Destiny Frasqueri, better known as Princess Nokia, held the Rad Marquee stage at midnight with unusual power for a self-described nerd. Though she’s obviously got herself a stylist now, some of her early videos showed a kid with glasses and baggy clothes rapping about memes and Game of Thrones. She was quite confident in those videos, and in a sense proud of her wonky temperament, which meant something given her impoverished, abusive childhood.

She made good on that image about halfway through her show when she brought out an interpreter and explained how important Japan was to her and “people like me” when she was a kid. The manga and anime she consumed helped her make sense of the world. “I love you Japan,” she said. “You made my life better.”


And she made the Red Marquee better. After Kendrick’s show, it would be hard to come up with a hip-hop concert that could compare, but Nokia’s was more personal and therefore more powerful. We were surprised she didn’t do anything from her new emo album (more nerdness). Essentially, she channeled her feminist, bisexual persona into freestyle raps that, while probably not connecting literally with the audience, definitely connected viscerally and emotionally. She was so on top of the situation that the audience responded to it as pure entertainment, even if they didn’t necessarily know the stuff she was presenting. The best show of the weekend.


Kendrick Lamar: Taking it to the fields

Much has been made of the literary calibre of this year’s festival. There’s a Nobel Prize winner playing Sunday and a Pulitzer Prize winner on Saturday, though, as a matter of fact, Kendrick Lamar won the latter in the music category, which means he was being recognized more for his beats than for his rhymes, but it’s those rhymes that deserve the awards.

The rain-soaked crowd at the Green Stage had to wait a bit, but in the end Kendrick’s stage production was actually rather austere, as if he were taking Japanese aesthetic sense to the limit. An odd generic Asian video played before he came out (Kendrick is also playing South Korea on this trip), and at one point during the show a ninja appeared at the edge of the stage, as well as an avant-garde type dancer flitting across the back, but for the most part it was just Kendrick for the full 90 minutes. No chorus lines or back dancers. No supplemental MC. Even the musicians were in the shadows. The only distraction visually was the high-waisted overalls he wore. He looked as if he were going fly fishing after the show.

Opening with “DNA” Kendrick was assertive and confident, and remained so during the show. There were no star theatrics, no attempts to get the crowd to sing along or jump in unison (a big thing this weekend). He did make sure he covered ground, reaching as far back as 2012 for some older songs. In line with his general demeanor as an artist, it was a serious performance, built on words and ideas rather than beats and samples and riffs.

Since the fans near the front knew these words by heart, they got the most out of the show, because they saw how much this stuff means to Kendrick. It’s very doubtful that the Nobel Prize winner playing on Sunday will show half as much passion for his work, but it’s not just because he’s almost 80. He’s a bit farther from his youthful passions than Kendrick is.

Carla Thomas: Heaven sent soul

The emcee at the Carla Thomas show at the Field of Heaven called the star performer the “queen of soul,” which sounds kind of blasphemous since Aretha is still alive. Carla is more commonly called the Queen of Memphis Soul, which is a pretty outstanding distinction by itself, and her backing band consisted of the cream of that city’s great R&B tradition, with members of the Hi Rhythm Section, the Stax players and a refugee from the Allman Brothers dynasty.

Carla’s younger sister, Veneese, came out first and did half a dozen blues numbers that took full advantage of the fire power on stage. She told stories about her sister and her legendary father, Rufus Thomas, one of the biggest stars on Stax in the ’60s. These tales, and the constant reminders that this was a Saturday night, gave the show a real old fashioned soul revue feeling, and by the time Carla came out the small audience was limbered up and the queen just had to sing her hits to get everyone dancing.

Of course, she did “B-A-B-Y,” and a lot of people knew the words, though I wondered if it was from the various more recent cover versions. Veneese came out for the last song, a cover of their father’s biggest hit, “Walking the Dog.” By then it had started raining in earnest, so that dog was going to be very wet.

Superorganism: Let’s fame

Superorganism | Mark Thompson photos

The Red Marquee was more packed for the Superorganism show than any we’ve ever seen when it wasn’t raining. Since it’s the international band’s first foray to Japan, why all the interest? Well, mainly, it’s because the group’s lead singer, Orono Noguchi, is a Japanese teen who joined the group as a fan and basically took it over, despite the fact that everyone else in the group is about 10 years older.

You wouldn’t know that from her stage demeanor, where she acts like a gangster, creating cognitive dissonance of a different sort. Superorganism’s music is an artless blend of hip-hop style and ABBA effusiveness. Noguchi’s often off-key vocals set a standard for honesty while the group choruses summon up images of high school glee clubs.

But it was Noguchi’s between-song patter that made the show. Using the f-word as verb, adjective, noun, adverb and directive she took the piss out of the crowd, lying about her provenance (“I’m from the south, Adelaide, Australia”), making fun or her Japanese heritage (“he’s more Japanese than I am, which means he’s a good Japanese”), pretending she doesn’t speak Japanese (though she’s fluent in English and speaks with an American accent, she apparently grew up in Japan), acting like the arrogant rock star, and then tearing it all down (“I sound stupid, don’t I?”).

Everybody wants to be famous, as their song goes, but only Orono Noguchi understands why that’s a dumb desire. Weirdly enough, the audience understood, and even though the band didn’t play their full 50-minute set, they gave them an ovation that may make Noguchi wonder what it is about these Japanese.

Starcrawler: Show-biz kids

Starcrawler | Mark Thompson photos

Fronting youth and the kind of fearlessness youth carries with it, Starcrawler, a quartet of L.A. teens who worship at the throne of Lemmy, took the White Stage in mid-afternoon while clouds gathered overhead. As it turns out it didn’t rain, but it did bleed a bit.

Fronted by vocalist Arrow de Wilde and guitarist/vocalist Austin Smith, Starcrawler is pure Los Angeles, though it’s an L.A. that probably hasn’t existed in actuality since the late ’70s. De Wilde, as it turns out, is the daughter of one of the members of Beachwood Sparks, an august indie rock band of the ’90s whose music sounds nothing like Starcrawler’s. Does that qualify as skipping a generation?

In any case, de Wilde is definite Hollywood Babylon material. Painfully skinny, she’s all sharp corners and jutting elbows. Dressed in white fringed jeans, ribbed tank top, long, blonde hair streaked with red, she was just itching to be hurt, and the lyrics to their profane rock songs are about childish animosities and victimization. A sucker for the camera, she gave the YouTubers her best crazed expressions, all bugging eyes and evil smiles.

Of course, the other shoe eventually dropped and she bit down hard on a squib and blood poured out of her mouth. It was Hollywood in its purest form. Motorhead may be dead but as long as kids like Arrow de Wilde deign to listen and figure they can do that as well, Lemmy will never be forgotten.

Gypsy paths

Philip Brasor photo

Since last we were at Fuji (last year) the organizers have built a new route that cuts a bit of time out of the trek from Gypsy Avalon to the Green Stage. They laid out a web of paths in the woods between the White Stage and Gypsy Avalon that connects to the boardwalk that takes people from the White Stage to the Green. In addition, the warren of paths is lined with small craft businesses and some odd “artwork,” which we won’t spoil by letting on what it is. 

Esne Beltza: Basque in the sun

Esne Beltza
Esne Beltza | Mark Thompson photos

The big sold-out Saturday has arrived, so it isn’t going to be as easy as it was yesterday to get around the festival grounds. So we were surprised when we arrived 10 minutes early to Esne Beltza’s early afternoon White Stage show to find it almost empty. Is The Birthday that popular?

Esne Beltza
Esne Beltza

In truth, Esne Beltza, the backup band (or most of it) for the great Basque activist ska punk singer Fermin Muguruza, is the kind of act that attracts its own crowd after the fact. As soon as they took the stage and tore into one of their patented supersonic ska songs, everyone passing through to other destinations stopped and joined the ever-widening mosh pit that immediately formed and kept depositing punters on the other side of the security fence.

Esne Beltza
Esne Beltza

That fence didn’t stop the various members of the band from interacting directly with the audience. In fact, half the members seemed to have spent half the show in the mosh pit…or cruising the fence to shake hands with grateful fans. Given the time of day and the normal enthusiasm level of people who’ve just arrived, it was easy for the band to get them to chant Basque phrases (which could have said “screw Abe” as far as they knew) in unison and crouch down and then jump up during a break beat, something they did quite a few times.

By the end of the 50-minute set the whole field was crammed with sweaty, dancing people. And according to a friend back home, the number of viewers on YouTube was 15,000, as opposed to 40,000 for The Birthday. Pretty good for a band from Basque country.

Lewis Capaldi: Sad songs before lunch

The before-noon slots (yes, there is more than one) at the Red Marquee typically are filled with Japanese punk bands or foreign artists making their debut in Japan. A lot of the time it’s the last time you hear of these artists, though we do once remember seeing Fiery Furnaces give a blazing show at 10:30 on a Sunday morning.

This year’s dubious distinction goes to Lewis Capaldi, a young Scotsman who, in his own words, writes “lots of sad songs.” He warned the audience beforehand to “be prepared.” But they dug it, probably because Capaldi has a hangdog demeanor and a powerful, gruff voice that puts across his version of bruised masculinity with maximum melodrama.

His lyrics are full of the kind of romantic cliches that Elvis Costello rendered ridiculous by 1978, and the dramatic structures were all the same: start slow and quiet and build into something heartrendingly loud. Actually, that stuff works, and it definitely worked on this crowd, mostly couples taking in their first show of the weekend, my guess. In any case, whenever Capaldi hit one of those extreme Joe Cocker moments at the end of his songs, the crowd invariably cheered … and he acknowledged it, stepping out of his suffering character for the moment. Consistency is the key, not authenticity.

Peggy Gou: Now that’s dancing

Berlin-based DJ Peggy Gou presented a more conventional dance event following Jon Hopkins’ blowout. Strangely, the Red Marquee practically emptied out once Hopkins’ set was over, attesting either to his drawing power or Gou’s relatively lighter rep in Japan. We don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that Gou is Korean, but in any case her reputation in Europe seems to be much more solid than it is here.

Still, sometimes less is more, at least when it comes to audience size. Gou likes big statements and though her beats can veer toward the abstract, she’s fairly traditional with the tension-and-release. Consequently, about ten minutes into her set a dance circle had formed near the front of the stage, and the dozen or so people taking part were pretty damn good. Bystanders gave them plenty of space to strut their stuff and they siezed the opportunity greedily.

Gou is quite a good dancer, too. Unlike a lot of IDM DJs, she doesn’t just wiggle her butt and pump her shoulders. She weaves in an out of the beats, incorporating her equipment moves into her dance steps. The only distraction was a guy who came out waving a huge South Korean flag in back of her. At first, we thought he might be part of her entourage, but she didn’t act like it, even when he placed a bottle and a glass next to her. When was she going to have time to pour a drink for herself?

Jon Hopkins: More than one thing

There’s always a push-pull dynamic going on at the Red Marquee after hours. Though the festival tries to get like-minded electronic music artists together on particular nights in order to adhere to a given theme (Planet Groove, Tribal Circus), generally the similarities are only there if you look deep for them. Consequently, you’ll have dedicated electronica artists followed by IDM acts.

Jon Hopkins seemed to be the main draw on Saturday morning. He went on at 1:15 and played for an hour that was interrupted by a major technical glitch that took about 5 minutes to fix. Hopkins has won lots of awards and is a respected soundtrack composer (he studied classical piano at the Royal College of Music in London), so he knows the deeper end of electronica, but he was obviously hired to get people dancing, and he did, but not in the usual way, which is to start a groove and then just keep adding and subtracting during the time allotted, gauging the audience’s temper as you go. Hopkins actually played what amounted to songs, finite compositions that varied greatly in tone and structure, but were definitely distinct musical entities.

Thus the crowd wasn’t able to build up a head of steam, but that seemed OK with them. At the end of each piece they clapped and hooted and wiped the sweat from their brows, eager to hear what would come next.

Post Malone: Nice work if you can get it

Post Malone | Mark Thompson photos

The rapper Post Malone made his Japan debut at the White Stage headliner on Friday. Given that his show started 15 minutes after N.E.R.D’s ended, security expected huge numbers of people to make the trek from the Green Stage, but it didn’t really happen. Though it might be assumed the same kind of people like both N.E.R.D and Post Malone, one of the most popular hip-hop artists in the US right now, that isn’t necessarily the case, and it’s not so much that Post Malone is white. It’s mainly that his fans are.

Post Malone

And whether it was sign of confidence or hubris, he was alone: no musicians, not even a DJ. Just recordings, including his own raps that he doubled upon. That said, he gave a passionate performance and seemed truly humbled by the reception. But one couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all set up to make him happy rather than the fans. He was drinking beer throughout the show (once out of a sneaker) and stated unequivocally that he intended to “get fucked up.” I mean, isn’t that what the festival goers are supposed to do?

Post Malone

N.E.R.D: No one ever really dries up

Pharrell | Mark Thompson photos

Pharrell Williams’ and Chad Hugo’s NERD project started out a little hip-hop and a lot of rock. It was a resource that allowed Pharrell to dabble in stuff outside of rap and R&B that he was interested in, but over the years the rock component, which is what made the act interesting, has mostly fallen by the wayside, and Hugo was supplemented and then supplanted by rapper Shay Haley.

This is the version that headlined the Green Stage Friday night, and while they did a few NERD songs, for the most part it was a hip-hop revue, featuring “classics” by Snoop, Easy E, Beyoncé, and several by Saturday night’s headliner, Kendrick Lamar. Maybe some of these artists were produced by Williams and Hugo as the Neptunes. For sure, they also did Daft Punk’s hit, “Lucky,” which Pharrell wrote. But the only rock component was Pharrell’s continuous insistence that the crowd open up circles so that punters could make a mosh pit. He even chided security for not letting the moshing take place. “This isn’t America,” he said.

No, it’s Japan, a country Pharrell knows well, and for what it’s worth, he had the large crowd in the palm of his hand, directing the half dozen dancers as well as the whole audience to jump and boogie on cue. The guy is a consummate professional, an entertainer whose instincts are irreproachable. Who cares if he borrows some stuff?

N.E.R.D

Mac Demarco: Giving a rat’s ass

Mark Thompson photos

As a former indie band maven, Canadian singer-songwriter Mac Demarco has transitioned nicely into what could be charitably called the profane Jack Johnson, or maybe a post-millennial JimmyBuffett. Much more profound lyrically than either artist, Demarco still prefers the soft rock canon for inspiration, though I wouldn’t be the one to tell him. He’s relaxed to a fault. When he walked out on the Red Marquee stage in shorts, T-shirt and floppy hat, he introduced his band mates by first name only, as well as a bunch of casual friends who were just going to set stage left and listen. “They’re the bistro,” he joked.


And it was a loose show, professional but not very serious. He loved interacting with the audience, which seemed to know quite a bit of his material, though early on he said he wasn’t sure if anyone “would give a rat’s ass” if he didn’t give a good show. When his drummer started the wrong song, he made him apologize to the audience, and the guy just kept saying how awesome it was to be in Japan. The hits just kept on coming, and the audience seriously did give a rat’s ass, even if Demarco didn’t.

Albert Hammond Jr.: Very happy to be here

Albert Hammond Jr.
Albert Hammond Jr.|mark thompson photo

Albert Hammond Jr., who used to be the guitarist for the Strokes and is the son of 70s singer-songwriter Albert Hammond (“It Never Rains in Southern California,” an odd observation for a British citizen to make), held forth at the White Stage in the late afternoon Friday. Dressed in a blazing red shirt and crisp white jeans and sporting a halo or adorable curls, Hammond couldn’t have been more excited about playing Fuji.

“We’re so happy to be here and play you our new album,” he said at least twice. The audience was happy to give him their opinion of the record, and they seemed to approve, if only because Hammond’s poptastic take on indie rock was so infectious. How could it not be, with him talking profusely about mic cables and running back forth across the stage like a munchkin. He even played some perfunctory guitar. It’s a far cry from the toxic cool of the Strokes, so obviously his heart was always in this. Who’d a’thunk he wanted to be Tom Jones all along?

Tune-Yards: Hands in the air

Mark Thompson photos

This is the fourth time I’ve seen Merrill Garbus play and while I’ve always enjoyed her shows, I also fretted for her well-being. She had so much shit to do, singing and looping her voice, playing percussion and electric ukulele, all those pedals and effects.

Tune-Yards at Fuji Rock Festival

Her early evening show at the Red Marquee wasn’t particularly crowded, but the people who were there seemed primed for what she offers, a kind of super personal version of African styles filtered through her quirky world view. On her new album she takes herself to task for her “appropriation,” and the opening song of the hour-long set was “Your Hands,” which addresses this problem. Personallly, I find it almost too conventional in the Tune-Yards catalogue, but live she breathed life into it, stretched it out, improvised a bit. By the end, the audience was jelly. She got an incredible ovation for a song they seemed to barely know.

Tune-Yards at Fuji Rock Festival

So imagine their reaction when she eventually played songs they did know. “Gangster” and “Water Fountain” practically had the crowd tearing the place down. What made them so special was Garbus’s newfound ability to express herself without having to deal too heavily with the equipment. Her drummer and sideman helped a lot, but mainly I think she’s just gotten so good at this shit that she knows what she can and can’t do, and what she can do is phenomenally complex.

Tune-Yards at Fuji Rock Festival

Sporting a bluish-grey short haircut that complemented her elder sister vibe and a baggy grey dreww that billowed in the breeze, she cut an imposting figure visually, as well. But it was the sonics that sold the show. I understand her apprehension at being possibly labeled someone who appropriates another culture for their own gain, but quality is quality, and this was the best I’ve ever seen her. The crowd indicated it was the best thing they’d seen in a while, too.

Years & Years: Maximum R&B

Years & Years
Years & Years|mark thompson photo

There probably won’t be a more enthusiastic performer at the festival this weekend than Olly Alexander, the lead singer and central reason for the British synth-pop band Years & Years. Dressed in knit boxer trunks, a cropped tank top, thicks chains, and sporting a red coiffure, Alexander was so beside himself with joy at having the opportunity to hold down the late afternoon slot at the Green Stage, that he couldn’t stop talking about it. He preened for the TV cameras and every so often who scoot out to the end of the stage to catch a glimpse of himself on the jumbotron. “Kawaii!” a Japanese guy next to me screamed in appreciation.

Years & Years
Years & Years|mark thompson photo

It helps that Alexander is a great, idiosyncratic dancer, because his pop is really post-house R&B with full attention paid to rave culture. Every song passes through a break beat on the way from lyric to chorus. “Karma” was, in fact, one extended break beat. The audience grooved as one.

Years & Years
Years & Years|mark thompson photo

Though the set was occasionally interrupted by a balled, the bulk of the material was essentially quiet storm taken to its salacious conclusions. Sex wasn’t mentioned outright, but even the backup singers busted some pretty suggestive moves. “I don’t want this gig to ever end,” Alexander said near the end. Good sex is like that.

Parquet Courts: Conduits of clear electricity

Parquet Courts
Parquet Courts|mark thompson photo

I was surprised at how small the crowd was for Parquet Courts, whose reputation as one of the most vital New York indie bands of the last decade apparently hasn’t preceded them in Japan, though this is the second time they’ve played Fuji. Under increasingly misty skies and with a light breeze kicking up nicely every so often, they played a blistering 50-minute set consisting mostly of songs from their latest album Wide Awake!. The angular guitar parts and eruptions of punk fury made a huge impression on the small crowd, which reacted viscerally if not necessarily in a demonstrative manner. Guitarist Austin Brown kept responding in a way that was difficult to gauge. Was he taking the piss when he said, “Thank you, goddammit.”

No matter. There was definite connection. As lead singer A. Savage sang in one song, “We are conduits of clear electricity.” The off-centered melodies were reminiscent of Pavement, if Pavement weren’t so cooly Californian. PQ is intense as if by design. When Savage sings, the words seem to explode out of his mouth before he’s aware of it. The rhythm section of bassist Sean Yeaton and drummer Max Savage is jittery, propulsive, insistent. “I’m in the chaos dimension,” Savage sings, and he seems barely able to keep it together.

Parquet Courts
Parquet Courts|mark thompson photo

Though the audience clearly preferred the punkier numbers, they came most alive for the title cut from the new album, where they were joined by a supplemental percussionist and got their disco freak on. The fact that they can stop on a dime while all around them seems to be falling apart is their saving grace. The crowd didn’t know what hit them.

Let’s Eat Grandma: Small bites

Let’s Eat Grandma
Let’s Eat Grandma|mark thompson photo

The British duo Let’s Eat Grandma has called their music sludge pop, which sounds about half right. Though pop elements definitely abide, they aren’t as sludgy as they think they are. Their songs have distinct structures and the lyrics, in turns funereal and hopeful, couldn’t state their intentions any clearer. However, their songs are also circular: they never get a groove on, but rather keep revolving around repetitive musical themes that don’t often correspond.

Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth are also quite young, and their singing tone wavers between petulant and sardonic. The fact that they sound so much alike (they’ve been BFF since they were little girls and making music together since they were 13) means if you close your eyes you can’t tell who’s singing. And when they sing together and build a wall of sound, it’s blissful.

Let’s Eat Grandma
Let’s Eat Grandma|mark thompson photo

Their mid-afternoon set in a sweltering Red Marquee was well attended, and, judging from the reaction, well liked. Part of the duo’s appeal is their youthful insouciance, and Japanese music lovers can appreciate the cute vocal signifiers, the white shorts, and the artless presentation (that tenor sax solo was just so…satisfactory). I liked the dancing myself, which was performed while they stood behind their respective keyboards. The drummer sat in the background, very much part of the sound but not the sight. Since the songs are often rhythmically tricky, he has his work cut out for him.

Glim Spanky: Mystic in the mountains

Remi Matsuo has one of those voices that feels slightly off, neither smooth nor husky, built for talking more than singing, which makes her Celtic-tinged melodies all the more compelling when she does sing them, strumming fitfully on her oversized electric guitar.

Glim Spanky owes a lot to 70 Brit psych bands like Pink Floyd and middle-period Led Zeppelin, but there’s a lot of Fairport Convention in the interplay between Matsuo and ace guitarist Hiroki Kamemoto, and while the band doesn’t trade in harmonies, the lilt of the melodies marred to Matsuo’s studied reticence is quite moving, especially when the band rocks out, which they often do.

It being the early afternoon on a Friday, the crowd at the Green Stage was sparse. This is really midnight music, or even dusk music. The haunting quality of the sound set against Matsuo’s flame-red hair and her diaphanous hippie duds made for a striking tableau. You wanted people to pay more attention.

MONGOL800: 20 going on 800

Mongol 800|mark thompson photo

For some odd reason there were no introductory remarks made by the usual pair of comedians to kick of the festivities at the Green Stage. After the obligatory recording of Kiyoshiro’s “Inaka e Iko,” the opening band, Mongol800 came out on stage and just started playing.

Just as the punk band Hawaiian6 is not from Hawaii, there are no Mongolians in Mongol800 (at least, as far as we know). The power trio is from Okinawa and may be the biggest selling act from the archipelago since Namie Amuro or Exile, despite the fact that they didn’t receive major label help until after they sold almost 3 million copies of their 2001 indie album, Message. Nominally a punk band, Monpachi, as fans like to call them, play pretty much every style of pop and rock but it’s all purposed as arena anthems built for sturdy singalongs, so they were the perfect band to open the festival, even if, as bassist Kiyosaku Unzu noted, it was hotter at Naeba than it is in Okinawa right now.

Mongol 800 |mark thompson photo

Another reason the band was fit opener material is that, like Fuji Rock at Naeba, Mongol800 is celebrating its 20th anniversary as a band this year, so there was plenty to fete. The good thing about having such a popular act open is that everyone seems to know the words, and as the mosh pit swelled, even when they played a waltz-time ballad, the spirits rose above the heat. Those who had instinctively sought shade before the set gradually stepped out into the sun. And while Mongol800’s particular brand of rock can get kind of melodically repetitious, they play each song as if it’s their last, so when they finished up with a peppy bit of champloose reggae, you sort of wished they would stick around a little longer.