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?


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.

Bluer the better

mark thompson photo

Last night’s splendid weather held up til this morning and even improved. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when we woke up and while the temperature promises to be high, there’s a nice breeze coming in from the south. We also heard from a staffer that the typhoon has “veered off,” so we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

Apparently, tomorrow and Sunday are sold out, but there are still tickets available for today, and the crowds going through the main gate were lighter than we’ve noticed in the past. So for today, at least, we don’t have to worry about mud but rather dust. 

Mo’some Tonebender: Perfectly good guitar

Mo'some Tonebender
Mo’some Tonebender | Mark Thompson photos

The Fukuoka-based indie guitar band Mo’some Tonebender closed the prefest concert at the Red Marquee in squalling style. As the name implies, they’re into every possible thing a guitar can do but aren’t particularly obsessed with chops, and the crowd was totally cool with that, or, at least, with the punishingly loud riff riot they produced on stage.

Mo'some Tonebender

Visually, the band was pretty interesting. Bassist Yasunori Takei wore a huge pair of angel’s wings and a neon signboard on his head, never missing a beat despite the added baggage. Drummer Isamu Fujita displayed the kind of open-mouthed freneticism one usually associates with guitarists (for the record, he plays guitar, too) but managed to channel it into pounding rhythms that never quit, even between songs.

Mo'some Tonebender

It was an efficient, satisfying half hour of noise and mayhem and left the assembled partiers stoked for the weekend.

Mo'some Tonebender
Mo’some Tonebender

Good call.

Full Moon Fuji

Full moon over Fuji
Full moon over Fuji

It’s been perfect weather so far. Cool and clear, with a full moon marking Fuji Rock’s 20th year at Naeba. We walked the half mile to the entrance and the place was already hopping for the prefest party, which is open to everyone for free. We must have missed the bon odori dance, but the raffle was happening (some kid from Canada won a towel and some cash and the MCs were making fun of his lack of Japanese, but in a good natured way). The fireworks went off as scheduled at 8 p.m., and for once you could chart their definitions in the sky; no obscuring mist or clouds.

Prefest fireworks get this party started

Koichi Hanafusa, one of the major domos of the festival, made his usual opening remarks at the Red Marquee, noting the 20th anniversary and making a special note of the international flavor of the festival, greeting the assembled crowd in about ten different languages. Of course, that’s part of Fuji’s appeal, which may be increasingly rara, even in Japan, where diversity isn’t quite as celebrated as it might be, though, compared to the U.S. at the moment, it’s doing better than could be expected. In any case, Fuji’s ecumenical spirit is celebrated most fervently at the prefest blowout, where groups who deign to play for free get to strut their stuff in front of the most receptive crowd of the weekend–the prefest punters, who get in for free, but are already itching for great music. The adrenalin is already present.

Interactivo at the Red Marquee for the prefest fest.
Interactivo at the Red Marquee for the prefest fest.

Interactivo, the band that opened the festival, is from Cuba, which is as ecumenical as they come. They started with a funky fusion instrumental and quickly devolved into salsa sensationalism. The crowd loved every minute and danced their best latin moves. It was over in a quick 25 minutes, and we drifted out into the food court, enchanted by the moon and the easy, friendly vibe. It should be a great weekend, rain or not.

It begins…

the view from here | Mark Thompson photo
Where we were | mark thompson photo

We arrived a little before 5, got a primo parking space, checked in without incident, and parked ourselves in our 6th floor room at the Naeba Prince. It’s cloudy but muggy and warm, so we turned the air conditioner up high and basically waited. Nothing. I think this happened last year, too. The air conditioning doesn’t really work, something about “only in the winter,” according to the front desk, when, of course, the skiers are here. It sort of makes sense, since Naeba is in the mountains. I guess you don’t need air conditioning, and so the “aircon” really means heat for the winter…so why call it “air conditioning”?

Sorry about that. We’re on our way to the prefest party. The weather man says no rain until tomorrow night, which is nice, but after that it could get pretty wet, so we’ll enjoy the cool night as long as it last or we pass out. See you in a bit.

Major Lazer: Just a party, y’all

Major Lazer
Major Lazer

We’re a bit cynical when it comes to performing DJs. We tend to think that there’s not much to actually “performing,” since the DJ could conceivably just make a long file and then pretend to be mixing and switching as gestures to the audience. Major Lazer, the collective dance music project headed by internationally famous producer Diplo, doesn’t bother with the conceit when they play live. Though there is a guy behind the boards (Diplo? Not really clear), the music is accompanied by all sorts of performative nonsense — streamers, giant plastic globes, pyrotechnics, dancing girls — that pretty much set the stage for what their concerts are: Just a huge party. And the audience was only too willing to participate.

Major Lazer

And it was a kind of crude, regressive party, which may be the best kind and copacetic to the hip-hop value set. The dancing girls, for instance, were obviously at the beck and call of the male hosts, who made no bones (no pun intended) about using them for their own pleasure. At one point, they called on everyone to take off their shirts, and when very few people obliged they had to moderate the request by asking people to just grab something to throw in the air. As parties go, it was a makeshift affair.

But an effective one. When they said “jump,” everybody jumped. When they said “crouch down on the ground,” everybody crouched. It was nasty in the best sense, and once Bjork’s show was over, that party joined this one. People are very adjustable.

Major Lazer

Thundercat: Thunder on the mountain

Thundercat | Mark Thompson photo

It was a difficult decision as to whether to take in Bjork’s headlining show or that of Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, probably the busiest bass player in hip-hop. His topped the Field of Heaven roster on Sunday, and while a lot of the bands who played there this weekend weren’t much into the jam band aesthetic that was the original concept for the stage, Thundercat’s canny blend of yacht rock, fusion and hip-hop actually did. Accompanied by a drummer and a keyboard player who had to really cook to keep up with Thundercat’s hyperactive playing and singing, Bruner was expansive in the most literal sense, opening up his poppy R&B into full-blown bebop, with him and his partners challenging one another to supersonic solo flashes.

And he was clearly enjoying himself. Though his vocals, purposely mimicking the original yacht rock vocalist, Michael McDonald, were the main affair, it was his bass playing that stole the show. He’d get on a rip and take it farther than it could possibly go, faster, more complicated, and more beat-savvy. The audience just stood there slack-jawed, barely comprehending a hip-hop artist who dared attempt serious jazz, and yet it worked on both accounts. The fact that he was laughing and carrying on through the whole think just proved how confident his was. And confidence saved the day.

Thundercat | Mark Thompson photo

Asgeir: In the mood

Asgeir | Mark Thompson photo

Bjork wasn’t the only Icelandic artist on the bill this year. Asgeir Einarsson held forth on the White Stage in the early evening, and while his brand of pop is just as chilly as Bjork’s, he doesn’t go into beats or extreme feelings. If anything, Asgeir is perfectly honest about his vision of the world, which is stark and natural. His songs trend toward the contemplative, and his mix of guitar theatrics and electronic filigree, and English lyrics that actually mean something, gives him a reputation as an overly sensitive individual. For the most part, his show was subtle to the point of being insubstantial, but the field was packed, so obviously a lot of people get the message.

Asgeir | Mark Thompson photo

Lorde: Everybody’s Lorde

Lorde | Mark Thompson photos

Lorde’s talents speak for themselves, but only her youth explains her performance on the Green Stage under a suitably dramatic parting of dusk clouds. Spinning and cantering in a long see-through lace skirt and white Adidases, the New Zealand singer-songwriter took full advantage of her burgeoning fame as the voice of female millennials. But she was also site-specific. After her first song she explained that she’d played the Red Marquee back in 2014, when she was still a teen, and couldn’t believe she’d been promoted to the main stage, and as the opener for Bjork! (Actually, she didn’t mention Bjork, but the significance is obvious.)


Prefacing each song with a small explanation of its meaning, Lorde seemed oblivious to the fact that a substantial portion of the people she was talking to had no idea what she was saying, and we’re not just talking about the Japanese listeners. We understood it more when she explained she was a witch and that playing in front of a mountain had special meaning. We weren’t entirely sure what she was talking about when she went on about having crushes as an even younger person. We mean, we understood, but didn’t really care. It is a youth thing, and if the young female Japanese members of the audience did care about such things, we’re not sure they absorbed her specific take on it.

But she kept saying how “honored” she was to be here, and that such a “loving” festival could only happen in Japan. Apparently, she had toured the grounds during the day, incognito in a surgical mask, and was impressed with everything. She gave back with a singularly heartfelt performance that was all about her. Her musicians practically vanished in the glow of her self-regard, and we’re fine with that. Lorde wouldn’t be the artist she is without that self-regard. But we have a feeling that ten years from now she’ll hit herself on the forehead when she remembers this concert and say, “What was I thinking?”

Lorde (Mark Thompson photo)

Sturgill Simpsons: Back in the woods

Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson | Mark Thompson photos

It wasn’t surprising that Sturgill Simpson’s set at the Field of Heaven in the late afternoon was sparsely attended. Country music doesn’t get a lot of attention in Japan except from diehards, and Fuji Rock is, basically, a rock festival. However, Simpson is not purely a country artist, though he’s go the classic drawl and the sad sack subject matter that have made him one of the more interesting left field country artists in America right now. But he’s also a mean guitar player who’s obviously studied Clapton, Page, Van Halen and other blues based shredders, and he shapes his songs around solos and big instrumental moments.

If more people knew about this aspect of Simpson’s music, they probably would have showed up. Moreover, if they knew that Simpson once lived in Japan when he was with the US Navy, they might have been more curious. He word a Hakama jacket in deference to Japan, but he was too shy to make a big deal out of his time here. He dedicated “Sea Stories” to Japan, a song about drinking in the country mode, but here the drinking is in places like Roppongi, Harajuku, Shibuya, etc. The crowd picked up on every reference and cheered each one. Who says country music doesn’t travel.

Sturgill Simpson

But what really hooked the crowd was the rock dynamic of what we consider the best-looking group at the festival so far: an organist who looks like John Kaye’s evil twin, a mountain of a bass player, and a drummer who was probably the ne’er-do-well son of a backwoods gas station monopoly. They shifted capably from backwoods country to electric blues to classic rock with the facility of a great bar band, and the audience was sucked in.

Country, yes, but it was also the best pure rock show of the weekend.

Slowdive: Slow corps

Slowdive | Mark Thompson photo

By now, we’re pretty anxious whenever we step into the Red Marquee. Though the rain has mostly held off today, as soon as we entered the tent to wait around for the British shoegazer outfit Slowdive, it did start to rain in earnest, and we wondered it we were the cause. Actually halfway through the set we noticed some sunshine outside, but maybe that was our imagination, or a mirage. But in any case the rain seemed to have stopped.

Who knows? Maybe the band’s hypnotic psychedelic guitar sound appeased the weather gods. For sure, their music is not the kind of thing we listen to at home. It’s too redundant, the tempos are all the same, and there’s no dynamic range—songs start incredibly loud and remain that way. The only distinctions are melodic and harmonic.

Slowdive Mark Thompson photo

But live, this stuff works much better than you could imagine, and while some of the people definitely stopped by to get in out of the rain, by the end of the set, they were as hypnotized as those who expected to be. I mean, any band with three guitars has to be paid attention to.

At one point, Neil Halstead commented about Japan, “I really like that the weather doesn’t change here,” though maybe he was talking about the weather inside the Red Marquee. God knows it changed three times during their set outside.

Slowdive | Mark Thompson photo