Maybe it’s just because they’re from Wales and occasionally sing in Welsh, but Super Furry Animals has cultivated an oddball reputation that non-fans may not be able to appreciate.
Under a party cloudy sky at dusk, with gentle cool breezes wafting over a filled field, the group played the White Stage with an insouciance that was probably partly put-on. Gruff Rhys sings in a slightly off-key monotone punctuated by rock singer effusions that sound like non sequiturs. Dressed in identical white Hazmat suits they gave the impression that their music was toxic. Actually, it was anodyne, smooth, unhurried, unexcited.
Rhys brought out cards with Japanese writing on them to direct the audience to applaud whenever necessary. It usually wasn’t necessary. A lot people not only knew when to applause, but they knew the lyrics, too.
The songs became more intense but no more animated at the concert proceeded. They ended by leaving the stage for a short spell while electronics ran on a loop and then returned dressed as…super furry animals. No, really. And the audience loved it. It pays to be Welsh.
It’s difficult to pin down the two-man band called Twenty One Pilots. They took the White Stage a little after 4 in horror show costumes to a hardcore stomp. Was this a death metal band? Well, only for a song, but it’s one of the group’s hallmarks that whatever style of music they’re playing they make a point of playing it very well. With his neck and hands smeared with greasy soot, lead singer Tyler Joseph certainly looked like an art rocker, but his smooth transitions from piano to ukulele to bass and back again betrayed a more rounded musical education. Meanwhile, drummer Josh Dun, tattooed and burly with prominent red circles painted under his eyes, provided both a solid backbeat and a visual foil.
It’s almost saying too little to mention that no two songs sounded alike: hip-hop, reggae, dub, even Elton John style piano rock. And as the opening dramaturgy showed, Joseph knows how to engineer theatricality to the show’s advantage.
Obviously, there was a contingent of people who were already fans because they knew the lyrics, but it’s also safe to say the the two men just added a few hundred more. It was one of those rare instances where you could sense a wonderful discovery being made. Come to think of it, that’s one of Fuji Rock’s most salient features.
Saturday afternoon is hump time, and most level surfaces throughout the festival site were covered with people dozing in chairs or just dozing. We half expected to see most of the people in the Red Marquee in such a state for Aqualung’s early afternoon show since the British singer-songwriter (Matt Hales) is known for ballads. Surprisingly, the shed was packed, and most of the people were standing. Hales’ classically oriented songs don’t lend themselves to dancing or mush emotional catharsis, so there wasn’t much to observe in terms of audience reaction.
Totally the opposite atmosphere held sway at the Green Stage a little while later when Nate Ruess played. We have yet to figure out what the distinction between Ruess’s main gig, fun., and his solo act is, since fun. is almost all Ruess’s baby, and his new material follows the same pattern: grand melodies, life-positive lyrics, huge dynamic shifts and full-throated singing. Though most of the songs were from his new album, he did the fun hits and also a song from his first band, The Format.
He even did Prince’s “Let’s Get Crazy” in a bid to prepare the crowd for Deadmau5 later on the same stage. People in the audience didn’t dance as much as the people on stage, who wheeled and ran pivot on each other during the upbeat numbers. The audience did perk up on the big chorus songs, like “We Are Young,” a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Actually, white guys have to try harder in the afternoon, and Ruess seemed to understand his function.
Friday’s merciful weather gave way to full fledged sunshine on Saturday morning, but there was also a stiff breeze to counter the scorch. Appropriately, Holychild held forth at the Red Marquee at lunchtime. Though the duo–expanded to a trio with a drummer for their live performances–is famous for their sardonic take on poppy R&B — the title of their new album is “The Shape of Brat Pop to Come” — the vibe is very sunny.
Singer Liz Nistico came out in hip huggers and a silver bikini top and was all perky and bubbly, shaking her hips vigorously to the harsh beats. Though it was too hot by half in the Red Marquee to dance, a lot of people took up Nistico’s invitation to do that. She’s persuasive, but the whole kawaii act, which appeared sincere but was obviously aimed at this particular audience, undermined a lot of her cred as a wiseass. She announced that the crowd in front of her was the largest they had ever played for, which would seem to indicate they haven’t done many festivals.
Fermin Muguruza is from the Basque country and he’ll never let you forget it, though if you’re expecting some sort of Andalusian ballads you’ll be in for a shock. Muguruza plays the punkier sort of ska, the faster the better. His midnight set at the Naeba Shokudo was relentless. Fronting an excellent band of local musicians, he played classics and some of his own tunes in his own language, which tend to be political in nature. But there wasn’t a whole lot of politics going down during the set. It was just a big party that sucked in everyone who happened to be passing by.
The Foo Fighters headlined Friday night for a reason. And not just because they’re now the biggest rock act in the world, though that has something to do with it. Dave Grohl’s accident in Sweden, which made him a temporary invalid and a media darling, was milked to the extreme at their headlining appearance. Everyone knew about Dave’s broken ankle and the “throne” he had built to continue the band’s world tour, so there was no surprise. What was surprising was the dedication that Dave would apply to his two-hour show.
He would continually refer to his situation, pointing out how much he was endeavoring to keep his fans happy, because he was a fan first and foremost. He identitified with the audience, and wanted them to understand that. Every song had that urgency, and the packed crowd in front of the Green Stage responded in kind..It was a phenomenally right concert.
No matter how conventionally you found Dave’s hard rock songs, in concert they sounded very important. Standing on the hill stage right I was reminded of the Rage Against the Machine show in 1999, when the crowd on the ground responded as one. I wouldn’t have thought it possible.
But then I wandered over to the Naeba Shokudo stage after the show and caught Rafven’s much smaller performance. The crowd was also smaller and thus much more intense. It was galvanizing in a way the Foo Fighters show wasn’t.
Based on everyone I talked to at and before the festival, the act that everyone was most interested in was Motorhead, which is both strange and predictable. Strange in that such straightforward commercial acts rarely appear at Fuji, predictable because Fuji is supposedly suffering financial woes, so having such a band will draw more people.Given that they’re playing at several Asia festivals together, it seems the Motorhead gig is connected to the Foo Fighters’ headlining appearance. Maybe not.
But in any case, we were surprised at the sparseness of the crowd when the power trio hit the stage. Lemmy Kilmister, the only original member and a legend in his own time, was visually frail and though he sang all the songs as required, seemed slightly out of it. In any case, few people, native speaker or otherwise, could understand a word he said, which thus required the lead guitarist to do much of the communication.
But rock prevails, and as the set progressed and the sun set duly in the west (not visible, but setting off a strikingly subtle evening light) more people showed up and rocked the way they were meant to. In the end, things always work themselves out for the best.
Kitty, Daisy and Lewis are white English siblings dedicated to the idea that African-American music is the only music that matters, but they aren’t so doctrinaire that they limit their influences to Southern soul or Harlem jazz or urban quiet storm. They pretty much cover everything with a refreshing insouciance that incorporates a winking knowledge of what it takes to please an audience. They’re also a kind of underground cult fave in Japan, which is why the Field of Heaven was packed for their late afternoon show.
Both Kitty and Daisy were dressed in form-fitting lame outfits, and brother Lewis in a bespoke suit. What that means is anyone’s guess, but obviously they meant to cover all the bases. Each one rotated through all the required instruments – guitar, keyboards, drums – thus demonstrating how they grew up in a home that valued such things.
More significantly, they played with calculated attention to the crowd’s response. This was old-fashioned R&B, the kind of revue show spontaneity that got audiences on their feet. The people were relaxed but in the groove, under a cloudy sky and coaxed by cool late afternoon breezes, courtesy of the forests surrounding the stage.
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.
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.
Cloudy with a chance of R&B. The coffee at the hotel sucked so we needed something to wake us up. Stone Foundation, a largish British band that plays original tunes that borrow heavily from Southern soul, opened the Red Marquee on Friday to a crowd that was up for that sort of thing, and so were we, even if the vibe was a bit too preppy for our tastes. Also, the horns used tablet PCs for their charts. Is nothing sacred?
Consequently, we left before the set ended so we could catch Charanporantan again at the Field of Heaven. We want to amend our previous comment. Charanporantan doesn’t strictly play kayokyoku, unless your idea of vintage Japanese pop is actually a mish-mash of all forms of pop, which is what they play. Fronted by sisters Momo and Koharu, the former born in Heisei, the latter in Showa, the group is dedicated to a very Japanese idea of showmanship, sharp, silly, and more irreverent than you might expect. With their all girl horn section and Koharu on button accordion, the arrangements are simple and flexible, and they moved easily from chanson to rockabilly to boogie woogie and even klezmer with tongue either firmly in cheek or wagging salaciously at any ridiculous taboo that occurred to them. At one point Koharu, who acted as sardonic master of ceremonies, introduced a song for “minorities,” in this case shut ins which in Japan are called “hikikomori.” The song, set to the Bay City Rollers hit “Saturday Night” exchanged the titular chant with “Soto de nai” (“always inside”). “We hate summer, too,” Momo added.
The crowd, relieved from the hot humidity by a cool, welcome drizzle, loved every minute of it, and were energized anew when the group was augmented by a real klezmer band, the Norwegian maniacs Rafven, for a version of “Hava Nagila.” Momo promised to drop in for the band’s set the next day. It will be another early show. Who needs caffeine?
Not sure how mountains effect the movement of typhoons, so the storm that was threatening Honshu on Thursday didn’t concern me as far as how it would affect Fuji Rock 15. Driving up to Naeba, the clouds were dramatic but withholding. It wasn’t until we emerged from that last tunnel and entered Yuzawa town, where the festival is held, that we encountered rain. It was a very familiar feeling.
The pre-fest party was in full swing when we arrived, and packed with celebrants. The light drizzle didn’t dampen the spirits of the bon odori revelers, and the fireworks exhibition that officially opens the proceedings could be seen clearly by all, though the humidity seemed to thicken the consistency of the accompanying smoke. On occasion the rain would intensify to a shower, and since the Red Marquee was the only shelter available within the limited space open for the party it was more crowded than it would have been normally–but “normal” is a pretty relative term for Fuji and weather. In any case, in dealing with food issues and meeting up with friends we hadn’t seen for a while, we missed the Districts, one of the groups who deigned to play the pre-fest party (for free, rumor has it), but we did catch the tail end of the second act, a lively blend of female idol-inspired kayokyoku and Moulin Rouge called Charanporantan, whose etymology I will have to study. The lead singer wielded a wine bottle throughout the set in solidarity with the party hearty crowd. The all-girl group’s theatrical flair extended beyond their sartorial extravagance. They were cute by design, as if to point up through contrast how musically fluid they could be. The lead singer, dressed like some Lewis Carroll character, had her stage patter down, saucy and yielding in turn.
The Circus of Horrors was mainly a taste of the vaudeville act that would be playing continually at the Palace of Wonder throughout the weekend, a sideshow presentation set to heavy metal. The whitefaced ringmaster in top hat did karaoke to headbanging back tracks while various unusual persons demonstrated their imperviousness to pain or some peculiar athletic skill, which wasn’t really so peculiar–juggling, moving multiple hula hoops, that sort of thing. The main theme seemed to be an old-fashioned disregard for political correctness: the barely clothed women strutted their stuff, there was a “simpleton” and a dwarf. Anything goes, I suppose.
The closer was the Chilean duo Perrosky, yet another, blues-based drums and guitar outfit and just what the doctor ordered for this party: loud, tough, a little sloppy, and totally heartfelt, delivering on the promise that the festival so desperately makes: you will be rocked, typhoons and drizzle be damned. (text: Philip Brasor; photos: Mark Thompson)