The Comet Is Coming: Hard landings

The Comet Is Coming @ Red Marquee | Mark Thompson photos

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. 

The Comet Is Coming at the Red Marquee | Mark Thompson photos

Khruangbin: Space monkeys

Khruangbin at the White Stage | Mark Thompson photos

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. 

Vince Staples: Virtuous confusion

Vince Staples at the White Stage | Mark Thompson photos

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.

Kohh: Leave me alone

Kohh rages on the White Stage
Kohh rages on the White Stage

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 rages on the White Stage
Kohh rages on the White Stage

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.

Kohh crowd

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?

Kohh rages on the White Stage
Kohh rages on the White Stage

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. 

Vaudou Game: Funk twice removed

Vaudou Game | Mark Thompson photos

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.

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.

Vaudou Game

“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.

Vaudou Game

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.

Vaudou Game

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. 

Phony PPL: For real

Phony PPL | Mark Thompson photos

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.

The Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band: Thais that bind

The Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band | Mark Thompson photos

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.

Stella Donnelly: The little and the big

Stella Donnelly | Mark Thompson photos

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.

Hanggai: Riders in the sky

Hanggai on the Green Stage

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. 

Water, water everywhere

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.

Tempalay: Things fall apart

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 at Red Marqua | Philip Brasor photo

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.

Yaeji: Talking in dreams

Yaeji at the Red Marquee
Yaeji at the Red Marquee

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.

Yaeji at the Red Marquee
Yaeji at the Red Marquee

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.

Yaeji at the Red Marquee
Yaeji at the Red Marquee

Thom Yorke: Substitutes accepted

Thom Yorke @ the White Stage
Thom Yorke on the White Stage | Mark Thompson photos

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.

Thom Yorke @ the White Stage
Thom Yorke @ the White Stage

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.

Thom Yorke @ the White Stage

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.

Thom Yorke @ the White Stage

Mitski: Not your usual lipstick

Mitsuki @ the Red Marquee
Mitski @ the Red Marquee | Mark Thompson photos

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.

Mitsuki @ the Red Marquee
Mituki @ the Red Marquee

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.

Mitsuki @ the Red Marquee
Mitski @ the Red Marquee

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.

Mitsuki @ the Red Marquee
Mitski @ the Red Marquee

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.

Janelle Monae: Pink is the color

Janelle Monae @ the Green Stage
Janelle Monae @ the Green Stage | Mark Thompson photos

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.

Janelle Monae @ the Green Stage
Janelle Monae @ the Green Stage

“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).

Green Stage lights up for Janelle Monae
Green Stage lights up for Janelle Monae

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.

Janelle Monae @ the Green Stage
Janelle Monae @ the Green Stage

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard: Metal mensches

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard | Mark Thompson photos

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.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

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.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

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.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

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.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
Crowdsurfing at King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

Sabrina Claudio: Personal touch

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.

Shame: Elbows out

Shame @ Red Marquee
Shame @ Red Marquee | Mark Thompson photos

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.

Shame @ Red Marquee
Shame @ Red Marquee

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.

Shame @ Red Marquee
Shame @ Red Marquee

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.

Shame @ Red Marquee
Shame @ Red Marquee

Fuji Rock positivity

Red Hot Chilli Pipers on the Green Stage | Mark Thompson photos

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.

Piping it in

AND THEY’RE OFF | Mark Thompson photos

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.

Chai: A little kawaii goes a long way

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 | 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,


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 | 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.