Ernest Ranglin & Friends

The estimable reggae guitarist Ernest Ranglin held court at the Field of Heaven at 6 o’clock, just about the time it started drizzling for the first time this weekend. Thought the crowd was good, it obviously wasn’t as huge at the one waiting for Babymetal at the adjoining White Stage. So much the better for those of us who decided to stay for Ranglin. His “friends” turned out to be pretty impressive: Courtney Pine on winds, Tony Allen on drums, Ira Coleman on bass, Alex Wilson on keyboards, and, best of all, Chiekh Lo on vocals and a number of instruments.

Ranglin, of course, is one of the most respected session guitarists in the world, and while his bailiwick doesn’t necessarily inspire lots of excitement, that’s exactly what he delivered with the help of his friends. Though the crowd was sparse and the rain made people a little less relaxed than they would have been otherwise, as the hour-long set progressed people became more and more excited, and for good reason.

First of all, with Chiekh Lo as main vocalist (as well as second guitarist and percussionist) the show was guaranteed to be special, and when he launched into “Susanna,” a beat-heavy dance number that featured the dancer from Ndagga Rhythm Force carrying on by pulling Courtney Pine’s very long ponytail and riding piggyback on several members, the audience was hooked. But it was the quality of the jamming that made it special, and which actually forced an encore, something very rare at Fuji. The Field of Heaven, after all, was inaugurated as a haven for jam bands, and Ranglin & Friends justified that designation to the fullest. People couldn’t get enough.

Leon Bridges: The rebirth of cool

To say that Leon Bridges is a throwback would be something of an understatement. His brand of soul is the type that prefigured soul as a genre. Though Sam Cooke is his obvious model, what he takes from Cooke is the pop sense of someone who saw rock ‘n’ roll as the next big thing, Leon Bridges is a rock ‘n’ roll singer.

Leon Bridges

Leon Bridges | Mark Thompson photo

He took the stage at the Field of Heaven in a spiffy preppy getup, two-tone shoes, cool shades, and with the hippest dance steps from Texas. He slides and grooves to a different drummer, so to speak, and often you get the feeling that his feet are way ahead of his brain. The crowd dug the whole effect, but you could tell they didn’t know who this handsome drink of water was. And while Bridges’ forte is the romantic ballad (many of which were about his family), it was the boogie woogie and upbeat R&B numbers that won them over in a very big way.

Leon Bridges

Leon Bridges | Mark Thompson photo

Of course, it’s never difficult to get Japanese audiences to wave their hands and clap along, but once Bridges started to increase the tempo and the intensity halfway through his set, the crowd suddenly pushed closer to the stage and followed every note and step. It wasn’t as resolutely funky as Con Brio was the day before, but in its own loose-limbed way it was more fun. “These are beautiful people,” he said, ignoring the beautiful scenery, which was just too obvious. He didn’t come for the scenery, and the crowd didn’t know what hit them.

Soil & “Pimp” Sessions

Like Rovo, the Tokyo club jazz sextet, Soil & “Pimp” Sessions, seems to play Fuji every year, and they’ve attracted a loyal following among regulars who probably don’t normally listen to jazz; but, then, the band is so versatile they can play practically any kind of music, and often do.

Soil & “Pimp” Sessions

Soil & “Pimp” Sessions | Mark Thompson photo

Lead by the DJ who calls himself Shacho (president), who doesn’t play an instrument but acts as emcee and stage personality wielding a megaphone, the group’s legendary live shows are built around free form jams based on popular and original tunes and using audience interaction as prompted by Shacho. They’re the perfect Fuji act because they adapt to every situation as it happens.

The operative word is loud. Even when they occasionally play a slow number it’s pretty much in your face, especially sax player Motoharu and frenetic trumpeter Tabu Zombie. That these guys can play ear-splitting notes without blaring speaks to their skills.

Soil & “Pimp” Sessions

Soil & “Pimp” Sessions | Mark Thompson photo

Shacho’s speciality is complex singalongs, a kind of festival cliche but one that’s reduced to a science. At one point he had the huge crowd at the  White Stage divided into various camps and singing several parts, and every did it…their part, that is. “Look at that sun,” Shacho said, “look at that sky.” It explained the good mood, which explained the cooperation, which explained why Fuji is unique and wonderful.

Deafheaven: Stoke the mosh pit

Just as Rhythm & Funk were the main musical themes at the eastern end of the festival yesterday, today the main theme seems to be hard rock, or, at least, it is at the White Stage. Following Bo Ningen’s set, San Francisco band Deafheaven reigned with an interesting blend of metal attitude and shoegazey drone.

Deafheaven

Deafheaven | Mark Thompson photo

The band’s vocalist, George Clarke, sings with that carcinogenic growl that death metal singers like so much, which means you can’t understand a word he’s saying. Though the band’s press materials mention death and depression, he could have been singing about Pokemon for all we knew. The band behind him kept up a repetitive two-chord hum that ebbed and flowed, eventually breaking into a sustained metal thrash.

Deafheaven

Deafheaven | Mark Thompson photo

Clarke, dressed in black, would gesticulate and conduct imaginary musicians, sometimes kneeling when he wanted to particularly make a point that we couldn’t understand anyway. His dancing was . . . unique. And at the end of every song he would punch his chest. At first we thought he was trying to hurt himself, but he was only expressing his solidarity with the audience.

As with Bo Ningen, the audience was pretty much just waiting to act out, and during Deafheaven’s own apocalyptic closer, the mosh pit overflowed like a busted dam, and whatever it was that Clarke was trying to communicate, it obviously made the intended effect. Guys emerged from the scrim punching the air in triumph. It’s great to win.

Bo Ningen: The time of their lives

London-resident but Japan-born, the dark psychedelic quartet, Bo Ningen, opened the White Stage on Sunday morning under a blazing sun and in front of smattering of people who managed to wake up early. Dressed characteristically in black–except for guitarist Yuki Tsuji who wore bright red–and with enough hair to to launch a J-horror franchise, the band looked out of place in the stark light of day, but they hardly cared.

Bo Ningen

Bo Ningen | Mark Thompson photo

In fact, leader-bassist Taigen Kawabe sounded particularly excited to be back in Japan and at Fuji in particular. His keening, mostly meaningless singing cut through the group’s harsh, swirling sound. It’s punishing, but not without humor.

Bo Ningen

Bo Ningen | Mark Thompson photo

Still, the thing about a Bo Ningen show is the last song, which grows into a massive thing that takes on a life of its own. The crowd which had been waiting patiently in front of the stage quickly formed a mosh pit and went sailing over the barrier, only to run around and do it again. It seemed way too hot for this sort of thing, but everybody seemed to be having the time of their life. Kawabe eventually joined them down in the photographers pit, egging them on and screeching at the top of his lungs. A huge cloud of dust kicked up above the mosh pit. Where are the water cannons when you need them?

Beck: The conversation

We didn’t know that Beck was schedule to play the first Fuji Rock Festival in 1997. We assume that he was on the doomed second day, which was cancelled due to a typhoon. In any case, he mentioned this fact near the beginning of his headlining show at the Green Stage Saturday night, a fully pop showcase of the artist’s career highs, a greatest hits show if there ever was one. Naturally, the audience loved it, but what did it say about Beck’s legacy as an alternative artist?

Beck

Beck | Mark Thompson photo

He almost threw away the first three songs, as if he wanted to get them over with: “Devil’s Haircut,” “Black Tambourine,” and “Loser,” that latter a song that become so iconic that when the audience dutifully chanted the chorus in accordance with Beck’s wishes — “I’m a lost baby, so why don’t you kill me” — you couldn’t decide if you should choke up or be depressed.

Beck

Beck | Mark Thompson photo

Part of the problem is the way he assumed the guise of a superstar; dressed mostly in black, with a polka-dot shirt, Beatle boots and black fedora, his pimp-like aura emphasized his regret at having not been born a black man. The blues and soul tropes he appropriated so freely in his career were showcased openly during his set. Though “Sea Change” and “Morning Phase” are the albums that garnered the bulk of praise for their quiet, contemplative mood, “Midnite Vultures,” his ode to black music, was the album he referenced the most this time. His gospel chops were whiter than Wonder Bread, but they were also thrilling.

Beck

Beck | Mark Thompson photo

And despite the awkward attempts at “authenticity” it worked, mainly because he was so sincere in his desire to both entertain and make a connection with an audience he obviously cherished. At the end of the set, during “Two Turntables and a Microphone,” he sat down (after having conspicuously changed into an ensemble that exchanged the monochrome cast of his previous clothing into something patterned on red) and discussed his relationship with Japan, as if it were something we really cared about. We don’t think anybody did, but the fact that he went out of his way to express that, “If I could, I’d just like to sit here and have a conversation with all of you.”

Actually, that’s what the whole concert way: a conversation that everyone got. Nobody wanted him to be anyone except who he was, regardless of his own insecurities.

Wilco: ‘It doesn’t get any better than this’

Beefy, behatted and beaming, Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy took the Green Stage at sunset on a cool, green evening. Throughout the band’s 90-minute set he seemed at once at peace and energized. As usual, he didn’t say much beyond the usual thank yous, but he repeatedly tipped his hat to the audience and at one point offered up the opinion that “it doesn’t get any better than this.”

The feeling was mutual. Wilco is one of those rare bands who can’t do wrong because their approach is quality: If you can’t make something fantastic, then don’t do anything at all.

Wilco

Wilco | Mark Thompson photo

At the end of “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart,” he muttered “goodbye” and tipped his hat, as if in recognition to the audience’s attention. In the monumental “Via Chicago,” one of those characteristic Wilco songs that combine anodyne musical sentiments with discordant bipolar dissonance, he seemed resigned to the song’s hard rock prerogatives. The audience, who knew the song instinctually, raved when drummer Glenn Ktche freaked out in his normal way. The light was brighter. The world was livelier.

It was a mellower set than the one they did at the White Stage some ten years ago, and yet more intense, owing perhaps to Tweedy’s disposition to make sure this audience was thoroughly incorporated into the Wilco aesthetic. In the tougher number, Nels Cline showed off his particularly classical lead guitar skills. The freakouts were fully appreciated. Is Wilco the Grateful Dead’s successor as the greatest American band?

With his battered jacket and Big Bill Broonzy t-shirt, Tweedy was the ultimate alt-rock dork, but there was nothing precious about the performance. Whatever his demons, Tweedy seemed happy to be here, and we were extremely happy to have him. He honored the setting and the circumstances with great, transporting music.

Con Brio / The Heavy

Continuing with the funk/R&B theme over at the east end of the festival, Con Brio tried to top their extraordinary performance at the prefest party on Thursday night, and came pretty damn close. The crowd at the Field of Heaven wasn’t quite as stoked as the crowd at the Red Marquee, but it’s difficult to compare. The prefest party is all about anticipation. During the festival itself you have to prove yourself, and they did.

Lead singer Ziek McCarter was in his best Michael Jackson mood, spinning and sashaying and bumping and grinding and whooping to beat the band, which is difficult to do in this case since the band is so intensely funky. Thanks to a particularly loud and energetic sound check, a lot of people sauntering by from the Orange Cafe and Cafe de Paris decided to stick around, and they were quite satisfied. From the very first notes, the crowd was pumping and dancing.

Con Brio

Con Brio | Mark Thompson photo

There was also a lot more jamming than there was at the Red Marquee, which is appropriate for the Field of Heaven, which was baptized by Phish in 1999. During “When the Sun Goes Down,” not only did McCarter get the crowd clapping louder than anytime I’ve heard in recent years, but every member took an extended solo. (Personally, we could have done with the synth solo) The atmosphere became so intense, security started asking people sitting down to get up and remove their chairs. There were thinking about the people who wanted to squeeze in and boogie, but, by rights, those people should not have been sitting down during such a show in the first place.

“This is the most beautiful place we’ve ever played,” McCarter said at one point, echoing more than one act we’ve seen during this festival alone. Their enthusiasm matched the hyperbole.

Since they’re from San Francisco, Con Brio’s version of JB’s “It’s a Man’s World” was reconfigured as “It’s a Woman’s World,” a slight blasphemy that we let slide. No such transgression was evident from The Heavy, the estimable hard R&B band from England, who was making their second appearance at Fuji Rock, and leader Kelvin Swaby made it a point to say that every chance he got.

The Heavy

The Heavy | Mark Thompson photo

After the requisite, “this is the greatest fucking festival in the world,” Swaby repeatedly propped for the band’s new album, asking the crowd, somewhat ingenuously if they wanted to hear songs from it, as if they had a choice. In any case, they complied, even when Swaby kept instructing them how to singalong or react to certain lyrics in songs.

“When I say ‘cut it,’ go crazy,” he commanded, and people went crazy in their own fashion during the funk workout. During a Springsteeny R&B number, the crowd was asked to repeat certain lines, which they did. Gotta love the Japanese fan.

The Heavy

The Heavy | Mark Thompson photo

For what it’s worth, the show picked up a sizable crowd as the set progressed and the sun started setting in the west. It was a beautiful scene and the music eventually justified all the fussiness. Funk is like that.

Zainichi Funk: We got the …

People will tell you that the Japanese can’t do funky. Obviously, that’s a stereotype that’s been around too long. At the very least, Japanese are no less funky than white people, which may not be saying much, but if you hear someone say “Japanese folk just ain’t got the funk!”, play them some Zainichi Funk.

Zainichi Funk

Zainichi Funk | Mark Thompson photo

“Zainichi” means “resident in Japan, and Zainichi Funk’s music takes Japanese themes and motifs and funkifies them. Understanding the above–mentioned prejudice, however, they have fun with the concept. Leader Kenta Hamano, for instance, has all the JB moves down, but he doesn’t make any sort of claim to doing them well. His splits and dance steps are more like JL (Jerry Lewis) than JB, but he also adds stuff that’s completely his own, like this stuttery thing on tip toes. And while his singing isn’t going to give Bobby Byrd anything to worry about, he commands a charming vibrato that adds a bit of sassiness to his delivery. And we love his strawberry sherbet suit. He also does his patter in purposely bad English. “So, you wanna call and response?” he yelled. “Let’s call-and-response.” He then gave the audience an almost impossible tongue twister.

Zainichi Funk

Zainichi Funk | Mark Thompson photo

Jokes aside, though, the band is tough. During their afternoon set on the White Stage they sampled every brand of funk, from JB’s “Super Bad,” to funkified versions of kayokyoku (traditional Japanese pop). One song, a smooth R&B jamm called “Kyoto” trotted out all the Japanese streotypes in another call-and-response gambit. “Pokemon,” “Nintendo,” “ninja,” etc. The audience loved it at by the end of the 45-minute set the crowd had overflowed the borders of the venue. They know who’s got the funk.

Vant

The one problem with not having any rain is that the festival grounds get really dry and dusty. We woke up this morning coughing like Philip Marlowe, and when we blew our nose, it was practically black.

Speaking of snotty, Vant, the 4-piece group from “planet earth,” roused the crowd at the White Stage from their lunchtime doldrums with a smart set of short, fast, loud songs that combined the power chord popistry of classic grunge and the lighter side of the pre-millennial punk revival. Though the band is actually from London, leader Mattie Vant sings like a bratty American, which, combined with the refreshingly cutting political bent of his writing, makes you think he went to high school in Berkeley.

Still, the flannel shirt on such a day was bit much, and we were immensely relieved when he took it off after the third song. An antic performer and a cleverly economical hard rock guitarist, Vant doesn’t mince words. “Stop living in fear,” went one chorus, “and put down your gun.” Another one simply stated, “I don’t believe in God.”

The ecumenical flavor of the lyrics matched his stage demeanor, which tended toward hyperbole. “This is the most beautiful place we’ve ever played,” he said, staring up at the trees, “but it’s not just the view. It’s the company, too.” Awww, shucks. At the end of the blistering 45-minute set, the crowd had doubled in size and Vant was inspired toward more love. “This is the best show we’ve ever played.”

Mark Ernestus' Ndagga Rhythm Force

Since we’re not familiar with electronic artist Mark Ernestus, we’re not sure exactly why his name is attached to the African group, since he was nowhere to be seen during the Field of Heaven performance at noon on Saturday. It hardly mattered. Though the group has a guitarist and a keyboard player, per their name, this is all about rhythm in all its glorious complexity.

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The sun was beating down, and quite a few of the people who gathered looked as if they had had long nights. But as the band came out, one by one, and kept adding to the deceptively simple pattern launched by the kit drummer, everything fell into place, and by the time the vocalist arrived to get everyone clapping and dancing, they already were.

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Then a dancer with preternaturally supple limbs came out gyrating wildly and throwing candy to the audience. The interaction was complete, because this wasn’t just a bunch of musicians playing for a crowd. Everything and everybody was connected, and while we don’t think it was completely improvised it looked, sounded, and tasted like total spontaneity. The talking drum spoke volumes as one of the drummers and the dancer put on a contest that ended in a wrestling match. Drummers changed places with other drummers without dropping the beat. The singer chanted and laughed and kept the audience in the loop. It was already hot, and just kept getting hotter. (text: Philip Brasor; photos: Mark Thompson)

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Keen for a day

 

We were pleasantly surprised to see that Keen shoes had a booth this year at the festival, just east of the Green Stage area. We always wear Keen hiking boots at the festival and they’ve never let us down, despite all the walking we do over the course of the festival. Even more interesting is that the booth offers shoes for rent…or maybe we should say they lend shoes, since they don’t charge you for their use. Sandals, too, though we tend to shy away from sandals because pebbles always find their way in. Of course, the purpose is to get you to like the shoes so that you’ll eventually buy a pair. We’re already sold.

Drenge/Joey Badass: Stripped down

As the afternoon progressed, hotter and humider but not rainier (no rain, in fact, though clouds kept threatening such), it dawned on us that the crowd was a bit smaller than usual. The bottlenecks that usually occur between sets on the path from the White to the Green Stage were still in evidence, but hardly as punishing, and we expected more of a crowd at the White for Sunny Day Service, a hugely popular J-rock act with a built-in fan base.

The crowd for Drenge at the Red Marquee was even smaller, which could have been expected using conventional logic. They only have two albums out and are hardly a household word here, but the brothers Loveless are one of the better drum-and-guitar rock duos in the business–smart, sharp, melodic. Even better, they hired a bass player for their live shows, breaking a kind of industry taboo that has been in place since the White Stripes made drum-and-guitar duos the shit. Their set was criminally tight, with no fat allowed for gratuitous audience identification and self-aggrandizement. The crowd was small, but potently into it.

Joey Badass was similarly stripped down over at the White Stage–just him and a DJ, and three songs in he took off he shirt to make the stripped down adjective more literal. For a while he seemed out of his element. As the only purely hip-hop artist at the festival he seemed to be trying to compensate for everyone else who wasn’t there. It took him a while to find his groove. As much rapping as he did, he was equally bent on invoking the crowd to “make some noise” and provide the standard gesticulations indicating interest in the performance. He seemed distracted and diffuse, and couldn’t generate a groove.

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But then something clicked. Maybe the crowd finally got what he was doing, but everything fell into place, and as incoherent as his flow often was it connected. The groove took care of itself, and by the end Joey was exhausted and grateful. He thanked the audience sincerely, surprised that he could make a connection to a group of people who probably couldn’t make heads or tails of what he was trying to communicate, but nevertheless grokked his emotional engagement. It was a fine afternoon after all.