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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shugo Tokumaru is pretty much the standard bearer for that quirky brand of Japanese indie rock, and has been for a while. He’s become so good at it that he has no problem tempting ridicule with overly cute touches. There were lots of interesting things on the White Stage before he came out, including mechanical dolls.
The cuteness works not as cuteness but as something with meaning in an entertainment sense. Tokumaru is no longer a boy, but he still understands what impressed him when he was young and he tries to impart that wonder to his audience. During his afternoon set, when there was a lull in the precipitation, he explained that although Mount Fuji is far away, Fuji Rock Festival can still celebrate a great Japanese mountain, except that it’s Mount Naeba.
This imaginative and optimistic grasp of the world extends to the music, which is happy without being saccharine, quirky without being precious. Time and key signatures are as malleable as Tokumaru’s imagination, and he’s go the band to make it happen. Everyone except the drummer and the bass player double and triple on various instruments. The woman who was mostly on the accordion picked up the electric guitar for one song and stood on platform to shred, the keyboard player fanning her with a big board to make her hair blow like a real rock star.
Tokumaru also brought out Maywa Denki, the two-man performance group whose schtick is inventions for every situation, in this case an electrical percussion instrument that Maywa’s president word like a set of wings. He added beats to a great Latin tune and it made perfect sense. As did the bluegrass interlude in another song (Tokumaru is a great guitarist), and the crude AV touches, like streamers that came out during the climax of another song, a did the whistling and mouth percussion that formed the “solo” in another song.
In Tokumaru’s world, everything works because it works in his head. That he allows us entry is a privilege.
The Sunday openers are usually a very different breed of musician than those who start up Friday or even Saturday. Those people are supposed to jump start the audience, but the Sunday acts tend to be more soothing, since more likely than not anyone who manages to drag themselves out of their tents before noon is feeling the previous night’s excesses. So it was only proper that Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, who seems to play Fuji every two years or so, took the Green Stage with his gentle songs of love and pain. Self-deprecating to the point of ridiculousness (“Here’s one you may know…or maybe not”), he was dressed in a spiffy checked sport coat and a straw fedora, his characteristically boyish features filled out considerably in middle age. He speaking voice is indistinguishable from the one he uses to sing: lilting and a little shy. When he occasionally breaks out in a solo on his acoustic guitar, you surprised he has that much fight in him.
Sexsmith dedicated the set to a woman who worked for Smash but apparently doesn’t any more. We’d hate to think she might have died, but it was difficult to tell in Sexsmith’s dedication, which didn’t seem particularly sad. He has lots of fans in Japan, despite the language barrier, and when we went close to the stage we saw a lot of them swaying to his lovely little melodies and mouthing the works. Most were couples. It’s the kind to music that seems to appeal to people who are happy in love, rather than those who aren’t, and when he left the stage after a strong 50 minutes, he received a heartfelt ovation that belied the tiny crowd. He’ll be back.
The White Stage had a relatively laid back opener as well. Real Estate, the New Jersey band who plays a satisfyingly redundant, slightly hazy take on guitar pop was the perfect band to ease the crowd into a Sunday that threatened to be as wet as Saturday, but toward the end of the set the drizzle let up and there was even a few patches of blue. Martin Courtney has one of those high, very white voices that wouldn’t hurt a fly even if he were reciting Danzig lyrics, and combined with the group’s infectious sense of melody, the audience, which almost filled the White Stage area, fell right into their mid-tempo rhythms. It was better than aspirin, and easier to take.
Though as the crow flies, Siberia isn’t that far from Japan, in terms of making it from there to here as a DJ, Naeba might as well be on the moon. But there was producer Nina Kraviz taking the Red Marquee at 2 in the morning for an emotionally rich, often gorgeous 90 minutes of electronic music. Apparently, Kraviz got into the game in a decidedly unsual way—she actually studied to be a DJ-producer at the Red Bull Academy, after moving from Irkutsk to Moscow, where she formally studied dentistry but mainly fell into the city’s dance music scene.
At the Red Marquee she didn’t sing, which she often does on her records, but the music was lyrical anyway—open-hearted even. We wouldn’t call it happy music, like The Avalanches show earlier in the day, but it put us at ease. You danced because it felt good. You couldn’t resist.
It was bound to happen, though it also could have probably been avoided. There was a huge traffic jam on the trail linking the Green and White Stages in the early evening that stretched on into the night. The main problem was the Cornelius was playing the Green Stage and then his old music partner, Kenji Ozawa, was on the White Stage a little later. Naturally, it seems that everyone who is a Cornelius fan is also an Ozawa fan, but the White Stage area is much smaller and it couldn’t handle the overflow. In fact, the staff disassembled some of the barriers on the north side of the White Stage area in order to accommodate the extra people.
Richard D. James has developed an enviable image of a reluctant star in his incarnation as Aphex Twin, and it’s always made sense. Electronica artists don’t need to be faceless, and James isn’t as obsessive about his identity as some people are, but his aim has always been to steer people’s attention to his music rather than to himself. And that music demands extra attention.
Though he’s produced danceable material, he’s also made a lot of stuff that is just plain out there, which is why it’s difficult to explain why he deserves to be a headliner at one of the biggest rock festivals in the world. His set at the Green Stage on Saturday—traditionally the one day of the weekend that is guaranteed to sell out for simply logistical reasons—was an organic, growing thing that didn’t necessarily rely on beats to draw the listener in. It was all shifting textures abetted by complementary visuals (none of him, of course) that would occasionally turn into something stimulating, even exciting, but never remained there long enough to get a dance pulse going.
The highlight, in fact, was when red lasers sketched patterns on the side of the mountain facing the stage. As was true all day, the rain came and went, and about 45 minutes into the set there was a brief downpour that obviously affected people’s relation to the music. People had gotten used to the rain, but it was still a distraction.
Certainly, one of the most memorable shows we’ve ever seen at Fuji Rock was Death Grips after midnight at the Red Marquee back in the early 2010s. Though we were familiar with their material up to that point, the manic energy of the performance was so disorienting that we couldn’t get a handle on the song, but the visceral impact was powerful. We left it shaken and somehow wanting more.
The trio returned this year to the more conventional White Stage during a lull in the rain of the day. Though the group had effectively called it quits in 2014, they somehow kept going, and the White Stage show proved just how far they’d actually progressed since their retirement. MC Ride, the group’s rapper and front man, has always come across as a purely performative figure, an artist whose whole being is invested in the moment, and for one full hour on the White Stage he never seemed to exit his own head. Naked from the waist up, he was the classic hip-hop MC, but with a personal grudge against the universe, inveiling against the social and systemic rules that marginalized him, but since the music itself is so dense and abrupt, it’s almost impossible to understand what he’s saying. But the crowd picked up on the desperation, despite the conventional lack of melody and structure. Zach Hill, equally topless, matched DC Ride’s emotional extravagance with drumming that seems almost superhuman in its capacity to keep things going, but it was programmer Andy Morin, who with his bizarre set of evil scientist expression behind the board who kept the set moving forward.
How do they do it? I mean, playing a full hour without a pause, shifting from one “song” to another with impeccable timing and without acknowledging one another. How do they compile their set lists and memorize them. Is there some instinctual connection that makes it all possible? All I know is that, for the full hour I was complicit in their violence, and unlike the previous night’s Arca show, there was not cynicism evident in their transgressive music. It was as honest as the drizzle that occasionally fell, afraid to interrupt. The best show of the festival, so far.
The Avalanches were supposed to appear at last year’s festival but cancelled at the last minute, so their showing up this year was a big deal, and Smash made sure they were situated prominently on the Green Stage in the middle of Saturday afternoon, traditionally the busiest day of the event. Unfortunately, this year it was also the wettest day of the event, and while the Green Stage was well attended, there was a soppy, drenched quality to the proceedings.
There was also mystery, and thus some surprise. Given that the two album released by the group—16 year apart, no less—are sample driven and derived, no one know exactly what to expect from the “act,” and thus it was interesting to see six people run out on stage. Of course, the two core members of the band, producer Robbie Chater and multi-instrumentalist Tony Di Blasi—were first and foremost. But who was this female drummer and this rapper and this stylish front woman/female vocalist? Apparently, they are simply the current touring incarnation of The Avalanches.
After that, the crowd could hardly care, because they played all the hits, only in a live group format, with Eliza Wolfgramm handling all the female vocals and Spank Rock handling all the rapping. Though there was some differentiation between the original versions (derived from genuine 45s) and those produced by this lineup, the audience didn’t seem to mind because the show was propulsive and positive.
They knew that people were here to dance, regadless of the weather, and they satisfied that desire to the fullest. Occasionally, Wolfgramm’s interpretation faile the original, like on the sample for “Guns of Brixton” and the seminal single “Because I’m Me,” fell short of the original, but the rest of the band make up for the distinction with a rocking beat and a devil-may-care attitude. Though it wasn’t as inspired as the Gorrilaz show the night before, it was just as beatastic.
“Thank you for coming to see us in the rain,” Wolfgramm said at the end of the show, glowing with gratitude. These people, she should understand, know how to party.
Probably the oldest group at this year’s festival is The Golden Cups, a band that to most Japanese belongs to that hallowed “group sounds” fad that overran Japanese pop in the 1960s in the wake of the Beatles. However, the Golden Cups were slightly outside that manufactured genre. A real bar band influenced by the British blues of the Yardbirds, Cream, and John Mayall, they played the circuit in the ’60s, including a lot of American military bases (their name came from the Golden Cup discotheque in Yokosuka, where they often played), where they honed their English along with their chops. Such an education gave them a sort of bad boy cachet that didn’t sit well with the authorities, but nonetheless attracted record companies who were looking for anyone with real ability to play pre-sold compositions. Reportedly, the band hated the bland, predigested pop they were forced to release as A-sides (B-sides were the blues and garage rock they loved).
The men who hobbled out on the Field of Heaven stage in front of a motley bunch of skeptical punters during a steady drizzle didn’t look like the kind of punks the Golden Cups legend sells, and several songs into their set, leader and guitarist Eddie Ban made it clear that they weren’t going to play any of their Group Sounds hits. They stuck mainly to the blues, interspersed with the occasional hard rock original, the kind of song that got them banned in some places in Japan because of the subject matter (usually, loose women). But while they were obviously cruising during the set, their chops remained in tact, and by the end of the 50 minutes, the audience was in their hand, regardless of what they’d come to expect. When they hobbled off the stage at the end, the ovation was sustained and sincere. But they didn’t come back.
We should probably stop going to the Red Marquee, because as soon as we show up it starts pouring rain outside. Once again, the artist who was playing under these circumstances was rewarded with a capacity audience, as we mentioned yesterday, but in this case they really acted as if they were happy to be there. The young British guitar band the Amazons is the kind of act who are immediately pleasing to the kind of people who come to Fuji Rock: straight ahead hard rock based on juicy riffs and with song titles like “Black Virgin,” and an attitude that likes nothing better than to burn shit up. (The background image was a limo on fire.)
And that’s pretty much what they did for 40 minutes, enough time to go through their impressive debut album and win a truckload of new fans, who were so impressed they kept singing the wordless chorus of the final song even after the band had left the stage. They were so amazed, in fact, they had to come back out and record it, because, naturally, who would believe it back home?
Ukelele master Jake Shimabukuro held forth on the Green Stage just after lunch to a dedicated fan base that hung on his every plucked and strummed note. Personable and open, Shimbukuro has cultivated a nice little career in Japan, with extensive, sold-out tours every year. This was his fourth Fuji Rock appearance and he came off as the kind of seasoned pro who feels right at home.
Though he plays pretty much anything, his metier is progressive rock. He can really shred, and while the bulk of his material is original and poppy, he also did impressive versions of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that zeroed in on those tunes’ lyricism. (Fun fact: George Harrison was an obsessive ukelele collector) And his version of a Hawaiian traditional folk tune was practically metal. His stunted Japanese stage patter just made him that more endearing to his female fans, but the guy would be a guitar god if that’s the instrument he played. Size matters, but not really in this case.
It rained steadily during the night and by the time the festival was up for Saturday a fine drizzle was falling. Most people were fully prepared so it wasn’t a problem, though negotiating those hazardous mud puddles is always a chore. Fortunately, over the years, most of the paths have been paved to a certain extent, but the Orange Court is still a big pig wallow.
We decided to take in some jazz. The piano trio H Zettrio was playing the White Stage in front of a respectable crowd who seemed to know their material, which was invariably fast, pounding, and flashy. The band’s playful demeanor is broadcast by the clown makeup they wear, though in person they come across more like a skater crew, relaxed and a bit irreverent with the canonical aspects of jazz. Their original music is basically variations on very simple but incisive riffs, and the leader H Zett M, occasionally switches to keytar when he really wants to get crazy.
Kyoto Jazz Sextet, who opened the adjoining Field of Heaven to a much smaller set of people, is a more traditional jazz outfit, but their leader and major domo is Shuya Okino, who has a club music background and stands to the side acting as emcee and spiritual counselor as it were. The music is definitely groove-oriented, but the solos can get really out there. At times the music dived straight into the avant garde only to swirl back around to an agreeable cocktail vibe. Martini music for people in galoshes.
Alejandro Ghersi’s midnight DJ set at the Red Marquee didn’t seem to channel much from the records he releases as Arca. Though the music was denser and bassier than his recorded hip-hop, it was equally challenging, and didn’t seem overly personal. He didn’t sing—though he did a lot of talking and there was certainly a diva quality to the performance. In other words, it wasn’t your usual DJ show, though he did manage to play music that people could dance to, at least every so often, but there was almost a begrudging quality to it. Arca would often leave his equipment and come downstage, strutting back and forth and vocalizing in various modes, but always sounding desperate. At times he seemed to be egging the audience on, but toward what?
Co-billed AV artist Jesse Kanda, who sat onstage to the left, had the whole back screen to himself and he really used it. The images, mostly of animals in some sort of distress, were extremely difficult to watch at times, and he would keep repeating them over and over, as if he were obsessively picking at a scab. Sometimes, he would throw in footage from the award-winning documentary, “Leviathan,” about a fishing boat in the Atlantic, and it was a welcome respite from the body horror. Combined with the darker shades of Arca’s selection and the DJ’s confrontational attitude, the visual portion completed a performative trifecta that was fascinating without necessarily being enjoyable. And it went on for a long time.
Few pop artists have had to adjust their expectations in accordance with their failures as much as Sampha Sisay, the London native who held forth in the headline position at the Red Marquee on Friday. Having tried and pretty much failed as a hip-hop beatmaker, he ended up remixing others beats (such as The xx’s, who were playing almost at the same time several meters away). But in the end, he just had to put out his own R&B-inflected pop songs, composed on his trusty piano, and set to keyboards and drums.
Though the motif was simple, the presentation was anything but. Sampha, dressed in an odd white getup that looked as if he hadn’t completely put it on, was completely in charge and had the relatively small audience eating out of his hands. Alternately swooning and declarative, his uniquely hushed vocals made such an impression that people around me gasped at the emotional clarity. R&B has turned into a form that favors style over content, but Sampha doesn’t see much distinction.
The xx were fairly humble during their amazing early evening gig on the Green Stage. Only the three of them, performing intensely emotional music with beats that penetrated to the core, and the overcapacity crowd felt every intention. Though Romy Croft and Oliver Sim fronted the band with their vocals and warm stage patter, it was Jamie xx Smith who commanded the show, perched atop his riser in the back with his battery of keyboards setting the beats and, for that matter, the general tenor of the show.
The xx’s peculiar brand of white bread R&B is founded on a distinctly downtempo model, and yet the hour-long show cooked and simmered thanks to Jamie’s instinctive gift for finding the kernel of a surefire melody in his search for the perfect riff.It was one of those nights of perfect synergy. Smash has occasionally, but not always, been able to program their Fuji Rock stages so that the acts complement one another.
The xx’s show flowed perfectly into that of the Gorillaz, a band that most people think exists only on digital media. The cartoon characters that front the group, however, remained in the background, on the back screen.
Though Damon Albarn and his backup band donned black surgical masks for the first song, it was mostly a feint. They discarded them and launched into a full blown band concert that never flagged. At one point, Albarn acknowledged that the band’s anime m.o. may have held it back as a live act. This was their second time in Japan, but the first time “at an industrial setting” in 2001 (Summer Sonic, to be exact), where the band played behind a scrim, was apparently less than ideal.
Albarn made up for it with a funk marathon that stretched his understanding of black music, and while he had to rely on various black rappers and singers to fulfill his ideas, it was for the most part Albarn’s show all the way, and he held his own. It may have been the most viscerally satisfying show we’ve seen on the Green Stage since Rage Against the Machine back in 99, and that’s saying a lot. The thing is, Gorillaz knows what it takes to rock a crowd of over 10,000 people. It’s a rare talent.
We’ve already talked about how specifically Japanese acts may not connect in the way they’ve intended to foreign punters at the festival. However, Father John Misty’s early evening performance at the Field of Heaven demonstrates pretty much the opposite: How an artist flies over the head of the local audience and talks directly to those who understand where he’s coming from.
This particular truth was illustrated abruptly after the fourth song of the set. Misty apologized for all the “American and English” fans in the audience who were screaming out favorites and generally making a nuisance of themselves. “Silence make us very nervous,” he said, in deference to the Japanese audience’s…deference.
He had a point but also missed it. What’s mainly prominent in Misty’s show is the dramatic, performative element that becomes the kernel of his point. Basically, Misty is Kenny Loggins trapped in the body of an r&b sex god, and Misty exaggerated this quality to such a degrees that the Japanese fans in the audience could only look on in awed bewilderment, but the gaijin knew exactly what he was talking about when he sexualized the forest background and talked about getting it on with his significant other in a tent on the edge of Fuji Rock. It was perfect: He was localizing his musical sensibility, but, unfortunately, only the foreigners understood what he was getting at.
But drama always succeeds. The best joke in Misty’s arsenal is the fact that his band looke like variations of him: besuited, hirsute, white to the point of embarrasment. And while his sexual component is obviously a ruse, it’s also effective. During one song, I noticed two Caucasian women dancing with each other in sexual abandon and mouthing the lyrics to the song. That’s attraction.
And then there was “Honey Bear,” the epitome of his psycho-sexual ouevre, a song that he sang as if he were James Brown, kneeling and pleading with his love for her sexual favors, and even the Japanese caught on to the story. Though the crowd was relatively small, the reaction was nuclear. People erupted, they spent themselves.
Jonathon Ng, the Irish singer-songwriter better known as Eden, was fifteen minutes late to his Red Marquee show, and then technical glitches delayed his first number by another five. It wasn’t an auspicious start, and so it was with some surprise that we noticed the place filling up quickly as his second song ended. The guy’s dark, one-man emo-flavored electronica has a certain morbid appeal, but we didn’t think it was magnetic.
And then we realized: It was raining. Pretty hard, too. Which means Eden was one of those chosen few blessed by what we like to call the “wet bonanza”: an automatic full house because people are getting in out of the downpour. As with most people who are visited by this blessing, he didn’t notice it—or, if he did, he didn’t acknowledge it, and, in fact, seemed pretty stoked by the size of the crowd. All his trespasses were forgiven.
Consequently, it took us a while to get out of the Marquee, what with all the bodies, and we wanted to get over to the Green Stage to see the Route 17 Rock and Roll Orchestra, a collection of studio and touring vets who have played Fuji before, usually in a revue style. Today, in the middle of a rainstorm they were featuring four big guest stars, and, miraculously, as soon as the first one, Tortoise Matsumoto, lead singer of Ulfuls, came out in a snazzy maroon suit, the rain stopped. We were thankful for that, not the suit or, for that matter, his earnest versions of American soul music, but the fact that he stopped the rain.
It was guaranteed kitsch, with a trio of dancing girls/backup singers dressed in colorful lame gowns. When Matsumoto was finished, veteran guitarist Chabo Nikaido came out and did some standard rock-type songs. Even since his former musical partner, Kiyoshiro, died he’s been trying to get his job as the unofficial mayor of Fuji Rock, and so he did a nice version of Kiyoshiro’s biggest hit, “Daydream Believer” (Yes, the Monkees song). The girl singers then did their version of “Please Mr. Postman,” punctuated by an appearance by Jason Mayall as the titular mail carrier. To lend the festivities the proper entertainment gravitas, DJ Chris Peppler came out to introduce Elvin Bishop, who looked as if he’d just rolled out of bed. He did a few blues and his one hit, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” which was sung by the black guy in an Oakland Athletics shirt who did a pretty amazing imitation of Mickey Thomas and was the best thing about the whole set. It wasn’t until he left the stage that we learned his name: Willie Jordan.
But the big name of the afternoon was the “wakadaisho” (young general) himself, Yuzo Kayama, who’s pushing 80. Kayama was one of the biggest movie stars of the 60s, but before he was an actor he was known as a guitarist in the Ventures digga-digga-digga-DON mode. He came out and played two instrumentals to prove he can still shred. He then did a passable version of a very good Elvis Presley song, “Blue Moon,” and then his big hit, whose title we can never remember, but it had the hold crowd waving and sniffling. Kayama couldn’t hide his age—his speaking voice is frailer than I remember it from TV—but he still looks good and thinks the kids are all right.
For the big finish, everyone returned to the stage for a version of “Johhny B. Goode” in tribute to Chuck Berry, who died earlier this year. It was obviously a rush job: Chris Peppler contributed a verse but had to read lyrics off his wrist. Even Bishop seemed to be watching the Route 17 guitarist for the changes—doesn’t everybody know the chords to “Johnny B. Goode”? But it all ended on an up note, and it didn’t rain a drop.
We listened to De De Mouse’s noontime set at the Red Marquee from the newly installed boardwalk across the way leading out from the old international food court, so we could enjoy Daisuke Endo’s perky EDM just fine but weren’t able to see his typical gyrations and extreme gestures behind the console, which is just as well. They’re sort of distracting and beside the point. But here are some pix anyway.
Forecasts to the contrary, the opening day of Fuji Rock 17 was hot and overcast. There was a sprinkling of rain around 11 a.m., but then the sun came out, sending everyone prematurely to the tents for beer and water and sports drinks. Some things never change.
But one subtle change that was noted several weeks ago by Patrick St. Michel in the Japan Times was notable: the preponderance of Japanese acts at this year’s festival (and, for that matter, at Fuji’s rival, Summer Sonic, as well). There are a number of good reasons why there should be a preponderance of Japanese acts at Fuji, the most prominent being that we are in Japan, goddammit, and there are a lot of great bands here. Except for the Spanish hybrid rock outfit, Doctor Prats, who wowed ‘em at the Red Marquee last night and launched the White Stage this morning, the opening acts on all the stages were locals.
Yogee New Waves | MARK THOMPSON PHOTO
We caught some of Yogee New Waves’ disco surf pop at the Field of Heaven before bolting for the Green Stage to see Group Tamashii, a band whose presence as the main opening act sums up this presumed turn to domestic product rather starkly. Fuji Rock is a huge draw for foreigners, and not just those who live in Japan. Last night we met several groups of Asians who had flown in to spend the whole weekend, many with their families in tow. Though Group Tamashii is a rocking good show, they’re also Japanese to the extreme. Actually, they’re a comedy group, and you know what they say about how humor translates…
Dressed ostentatiously in leather, the group has pretty much one theme: Sex, and not sex as an enjoyable pastime or a seminal aspect of living, but as a joke. Moreover, a dirty joke. Lead singer Hakai, who occasionally bombarded the audience with cheap plastic slippers he flung like frisbees, kept up a steady stream of blue language — he didn’t even bother with double entendres — that left the Japanese chuckling and the rest of us scratching our heads.
Group Tamashii | MARK THOMPSON
It’s not that we don’t understand sex jokes when we hear them—at one point, the portly backup singer Baito-kun came out dressed as a school girl and Hakai said, “Your clitoris is showing”—but these gags were soaked in Japanese pop culture, referencing names and situations that only Japanese people would be familiar with. (There was a five-minute routine about Kabuki guild names that had the Japanese in stitches) Given that Fuji prides itself on being a family-friendly event, one had to wonder what some of the Japanese parents thought.
Group Tamashii | MARK THOMPSON
Prurience aside, Group Tamashii is a nifty, tight little outfit, slaloming smoothly from thrash metal to punk to a disco song about sushi and a pretty faithful Michael Jackson parody. Actually, the foreigners who don’t know any Japanese and anything about Japanese pop culture probably got the better deal: It was a nice way to rock in the weekend.
We were quite happy to see that the organizers revived the post-headliner party at the Green Stage on Sunday night. This year they asked those electronica pranksters to provide the music, perhaps as a nod to the fact that the group is celebrating their 25th year in show business, and they were perfect.
Denki Groove | Mark Thompson photo
Sporting one of his famous top hats, Pierre Taki held the stage and the audience’s attention while partner Takkyu Ishino manned the boards, though he had a lot to add, vocally, to the performance. Of course, they played “Shangri-La” and all the hits, though at this point “hits” is a relative term for a group whose stage strategy is to be as spontaneous and in-the-moment as possible.
Denki Groove | Mark Thompson photo
We were sort of wandering around, marveling at the variety of dancing that was going on. It was as if everyone had received a second (third?) wind that would blow them into the next week. First they have to make it to morning.
Reduced to three members, the math rock band Battles still refuses to call it a day. As a matter of fact, they seem to be thriving after the departure of founder Tyondai Braxton. Which isn’t to say they’re the same band, only that they’ve adjusted admirably.
They’ve also thrived. Dave Konopka, the group’s bassist commented halfway through their headliner gig at the White Stage Sunday night that they never expected any such “honor,” but in any case, just being able to play Fuji at all was a privilege.
Battles | Mark Thompson photo
At their starting time coincided with the end of the Chili Peppers’ show. But as they added to their sound, gradually and eventually they presented their beat-heavy, angular rock style, people showed up, stayed, and rocked out accordingly.
Battles | Mark Thompson photo
It wasn’t necessarily easy to do. Battles’ music is tricky to the point of confounding. Generally, founder Ian Williams starts the process with a guitar or keyboard loop, and then Konopka adds to it with some bottom and top (he also plays guiitar). But as sonn as drummer John Stanier shows up ad starts pounding away, all bets are off. First of all, Stanier is such an imposing physical presence that the audience can’t help but sit up and take notice. He sits center stage, not in the back, pounding away for all to see.
Battles | Mark Thompson photo
Since it’s difficult to say where one Battles song ends and another begins, we can’t quite put our finger on anything that might be considered definitive. Nevertheless, since Tyodai left, there some openings, at least in the shipping dept. Who knows? It may end up being the perfect job.
Competing with both Babymetal and the Red Hot Chili Peppers is no mean feat, but, then again, saxophonist Kamasi Washington isn’t going to be particularly concerned with that since he’s a jazz musician who probably doesn’t think he’s up against anyone else but himself.
Kamasi Washington | Mark Thompson photo
For sure, the crowd at the Field of Heaven for his Sunday night headlining show was sparser than normal, but the folks who showed up were treated to a monumental show of musicianship that didn’t stint on the spectacle. Washington, after all, has been instrumental in imbuing hip-hop with a potent jazz component, and he has taken back in equal amounts: the show at the Field of Heaven was dance delirium.
Kamasi Washington | Mark Thompson photo
The large group didn’t really play that many songs, but everything was fortified with rhythmic intensity thanks to two drummers and an aesthetic that took black urban music for granted. “Rerun,” a typical R&B jam gradually evolved into a showcase for every soloist on the stage, including the seemingly teenage pianist. “My Hero,” a song dedicated to Washington’s grandmother that feature his own father on flute, churned into an emotional epiphany that left the crowd drained and wanting more.
Kamasi Washington | Mark Thompson photo
Even the showcases for band members — the bassist who just released a solo album, the two drummers who were given a spotlight to challenge each other, the keyboardist known as “Mr. Boogie” — were expanded to include everyone on stage, and also everyone at once. The songs built into monumental things, and the audience, in addition to dancing their asses off, were compelled to absorb the musicianship, which was astounding and thrilling at the same time.
The band dug it. They provided an encore because the response was so overwhelming This wasn’t necessarily a crowd who were jazz aficionados. They like R&B, and can appreciate a good dance tune. But Kamasi gave them so much more: dancing that transcended mere bumping and grinding. They were transported.
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.
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 | 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 | 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.
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 | 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 | 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.