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. 

Let the good times roll

Crowds cheer the Red Hot Chilli Pipers at the Green Stage of the Fuji Rock Festival
Green Stage … before the rain | Alyssa I. Smith photo

Welcome to the Japan Times live blog of the 2019 Fuji Rock Festival. We’ll be here for the duration.

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.

You’re beautiful, Fuji


If you were at the festival, you probably heard it a dozen times from the stage. But we’ll say it again: You’re a beautiful audience and we love you. The dancers, the singers, the shouters, the moshers, the ravers, the groovers. You’re the greatest.

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

Shugu Tokumaru: Boy wonder

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.

Real Estate / Ron Sexsmith: Hangover music

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.

Ron Sexsmith
Ron Sexsmith | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Ron Sexsmith
Ron Sexsmith | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Nina Kraviz: Excellent student

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.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

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.

Aphex Twin: Man of mystery

Aphex Twin
Aphex Twin | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Aphex Twin
Aphex Twin | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Death Grips: Don’t stop can’t stop

Death Grips
Death Grips | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Death Grips
Death Grips | Mark Thompson photo

The Avalanches: Tumbling down

THE AVALANCHES | Mark Thompson photos

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.


The Golden Cups: Blues are for old people

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.

The Amazons: Burn stuff

The Amazons
The Amazons | Mark Thompson photos

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?

Screw the rain.

The Amazons

Jake Shimabukuro: Uke’s good

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.

H Zettrio / Kyoto Jazz Sextet: Drizzlejazz

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.

Arca: Difficult

Arca | Mark Thompson photos

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.


Sampha says

Sampha | Mark Thompson photos

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 / Gorillaz: Making their cases

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
The xx | Mark Thompson photo

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
The xx | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Father John Misty: The God of Sex surveys his heaven

Father John Misty
Father John Misty | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Father John Misty
Father John Misty | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Father John Misty
Father John Misty | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Elvin Bishop: Rock will set you free, and it will also keep you dry

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. 

(Text: Philip Brasor; photos: Mark Thompson)