Battles

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

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

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

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.

Kamasi Washington: Transported beyond heaven

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

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

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

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.

Smart Soul Connection

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Never heard of Smart Soul Connection? Think Peter Sellers meets the blues in a Showa Era lounge. Lyrics often amounted to just one word – SPYS! – shouted at the appropriate intervals.

For the finale, the singer jumped into the crowd and spread the gospel of the blues harp. We say Amen to that.

Beck: The conversation

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

Beck

Beck | Mark Thompson photo

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

Beck

Beck | Mark Thompson photo

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

Beck

Beck | Mark Thompson photo

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

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

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

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

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

Wilco

Wilco | Mark Thompson photo

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

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

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

Con Brio / The Heavy

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

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

Con Brio

Con Brio | Mark Thompson photo

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

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

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

The Heavy

The Heavy | Mark Thompson photo

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

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

The Heavy

The Heavy | Mark Thompson photo

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

Zainichi Funk: We got the …

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

Zainichi Funk

Zainichi Funk | Mark Thompson photo

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

Zainichi Funk

Zainichi Funk | Mark Thompson photo

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

Disclosure

We were a little late to the Disclosure show at the White Stage and by the time we arrived the party was going full blast, the area one would normally call the mosh pit a churning mass of humanity. 

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It was just the Lawrence brothers on stage, sans high-profile vocalists, who were represented by recordings, so most of the action was in the audience. Disclosure’s frantic, bass-heavy, poppy dubstep almost never lets up, but the crowd didn’t seem to require a break, at least not while we were watching. When they launched into “Carnival,” you could finally understand the title. It was a song made for this kind of huge, unhinged crowd.

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In the end, vocalists would just have been an unnecessary distraction. It was certainly the biggest dance party we’d seen at the White Stage in a long time. We’re tired just thinking about it. (text: Philip Brasor; photos: Mark Thompson)

James Blake

Sometimes circumstances conspire to create the perfect show. Though we’ve always been less than enthusiastic about the art of James Blake, the British singer who configures conventional R&B tropes into electronica expressions, we admire him for his earnestness and his ability to convey that earnestness into heartfelt emotion.

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Circumstances did conspire on Friday night. The weather was partly overcast, but the setting sun made itself known. Moreover, Blake made it clear that regardless of the specific situations of which he sang, he was talking about things everyone could relate to. He thanked the audience in Japanese for showing up and said what an honor it was to play in Japan, as if he’s been asked to perform by the Emperor. But he was sincere, and that sincerity came through in interesting ways. On record you tend to notice the electronic processing, but live everything felt immediate and unfiltered. The lighting was clear and unfussy, and the sentiments were just as comprehensible. We stood on the top of the hill to the left of the stage, listening to those pure feelings for more than an hour and didn’t really want to leave. (text: Philip Brasor; photos: Mark Thompson)

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Suchmos

Continuing with the “urban” theme that would prevail at the White Stage during the afternoon, Kanagawa Prefecture’s Suchmos played a well-received set of quiet storm, funky pop, and jazzy R&B. Lead singer Yonce strutted like Teddy, and though his relatively thin voice didn’t convey the kind of sex-you-up vibe his body was trying to sell, the band was up to the challenge and a fairly good crowd accumulated as the set progressed. (text: Philip Brasor; photo: Mark Thompson)

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Boredoms

The 20th Fuji Rock Festival started the same way the last 19 did, with announcements from NGOs about recycling and donating to disaster relief funds. etc. The two grizzled emcees joked a little less this year, but managed to mention the fact that Pokemon Go finally launched in Japan this morning.

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Given Boredoms’ sense of mischief you might have expected them to somehow incorporate Pikachu into their act. For sure, they seemed an odd choice to kick off the festival on the Green Stage. Boredoms’ monumental drum circle thing seems better suited for the night, and while the air was cool, the sun was intense. In such a bucolic setting chanting and howling had an even more shamanistic cast to it, and what was so interesting about the visual aspect was the mundane nature of the instruments, many of which were just metal hardware. You could do this at home, but don’t. The neighbors will be pissed.

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Maybe Eye Yamataka is making his bid to be the successor to the late Kiyoshiro Imawano, the mayor of Fuji Rock. Of course, Boredoms’ style has nothing to do with Kiyoshiro’s rock’n soul hybrid, but if you wanted a clean break to welcome in the next 20 years, you couldn’t ask for anything starker. (text: Philip Brasor; photos: Mark Thompson)

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Prefest is best

For once, the rain in Tokyo didn’t intrude on Naeba. When we left the capital in the early afternoon it was pouring and rained most of the way up to Niigata Prefecture. As we climbed the winding roads up to the festival grounds, the rain became more intense, but as soon as we surmounted the hump it was dry–overcast, but dry.

The pre-festival party is free to everyone. It’s sort of a thank you gift to the locals, but a long time ago it just became an integral part of the festival. For some reason they cut the bon odori dance this year, opting instead for a raffle (tickets were given out at the entrance to anyone who passed through). It was sort of cheesy. It was also packed, as if the party had already started and everyone who was going to be here was already here.

MARK THOMPSON PHOTO

The fireworks didn’t have to compete with the rain or mist this year. Though it was overcast, the hanabi came through clear, even if the emcees on the stage at the center of the Oasis seemed hard put to get the crowd excited. After all this time you could call them jaded. They were already settled into their festival faces, happy, slightly drunk, itching to be impressed.

MARK THOMPSON PHOTO

Con Brio, the San Francisco soul-funk outfit was maybe the best Prefest opener I’ve seen here since Danko Jones more than 10 years ago, and for the same reason. The audience didn’t know them and that itch to be impressed was thoroughly scratched. Lead singer Ziek McCarter shimmied and slid across the stage as the six-piece backup churned a greasy soul stew that ust became more intense during the half hour they commanded the stage. Festival regular Koichi Hanafusa introduced them by trying to find out how many in the packed Red Marquee had been there for the first Fuji Rock 20 years ago. Not many, you can imagine, and hardly anyone cared. The great thing about Con Brio was that they made you appreciate the moment all the more. Screw those memories. Live for today and raise your hand.

FKA Twigs: Performance art

Given how short a time she’s been in the public consciousness, FKA Twigs headlining appearance at the White Stage Sunday night was quite a phenomenon. And judging from the thin turnout, obviously the decision to headline her was premature.

It’s understandable. Despite her cutting-edge reputation among critics, Twigs has yet to appeal to a wider fan base.

FKA Twigs

FKA Twigs | Mark Thompson photo

Even in concert, it’s difficult to gauge the sort of emotional impact she’s supposed to make. Much of her act is dancing, in a fluid, abstract sort of way. Her singing is uniformly falsetto, copying an R&B model that’s mainly male. Still, the vibe is overtly sexual, but the live act was predicated on art performance.

FKA Twigs

FKA Twigs | Mark Thompson photo

There was almost no interaction with the band. It was just Twigs and the audience, who were polite but reserved. At the end of the set, she made a point of thanking the crowd for “supporting” her, though we’re not sure what that means. Is she actually making money in Japan? That would be quite surprising.

Shoka Okuba Blues Project: Tough stuff

We were sitting near the Gypsy Avalon stage early in the evening when we heard a curious sound coming from the stage itself. It was the sound check for the next band, which we weren’t familiar with. But the sound was so intriguing we felt obligated to check it out.

It was a band called the Shoka Okuba Blues Project, a Japanese power trio headed by the titular guitar player, a woman who dressed like a typical Japanese ojosan (proper young lady) in high heels and short skirts, However, she plays a mean blues guitar and can sing with equal proficiency.

Intrigued, we returned to the stage at the time the band were scheduled to appear and were subsequently blown away. It’s not just that Okubo smashes the stereotype of the wilting Japanese woman. In a sense she upholds it; it’s just that she also subverts it with her version of the polite young woman with a real life. It wan’t just blues. It was classic rock and a little reggae and some metal. Okubo slashed and strummed to beat the band, and the audience, perhaps perplexes by this cognitive dissonance, didn’t know what to make of it. We did, however, and grooved accordingly.

Jenny Lewis: You can call me Lewis



During her late afternoon show at the Red Marquee, Jenny Lewis, late of power pop behemoth Rilo Kiley, related about her first trip to Fuji some years ago, a show we saw and loved, though it was a strange one. Lewis, a solid rock act, played as the first act of one of the late night shows, which is usually reserved for techno/dance artists or out-of-there indie acts. What happened is that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was supposed to play but cancelled and Lewis was hire to fill in. As we remember only a handful of people showed up, but she delivered fully. 

There was a much larger crowd for this, her first legitimate Fuji show, thought it wasn’t what you would call a sellout. She related the earlier story, misremembering the band’s name as Clap Your Hands Say Hi, but the crowd hardly cared. 

Jenny Lewis
Jenny Lewis | Mark Thompson photo

Jenny (“you can call me Lewis”) plays an earthy form of Americana that connects directly on an emotional level, and the audience succumbed to her obvious charms. Whether she was playing country or soul or pure power pop–she did a killer version of Rilo KIley’s “Bad News” — she made good on her reputation as a soulful singer and a forceful personality.
Her band was aces, especially in the vocal department. 

She finished the show not with a bang but with a whimper and received the kind of ovation usually reserved for guitar freakouts. Playing “Acid Tongue” on acoustic guitar with all her bandmates only adding choir like choral backup, she floored the audience. It take a big person to pull off a ballad as a finale. 

Bloodest Saxophone: Ultimate R&B

Despite its awkward name, Bloodest Saxophone is very specific about its musical aims. An old-fashioned R&B rhythm and horn section, they play pretty much anything that swings, from blues to cocktail jazz to boogie woogie, and with an emphasis on the woogie, so to speak. They don’t seem to touch anything that can’t be milked for maximum sexual feeling.

The band’s afternoon gig at the Field of Heaven opened with three instrumentals that touched all the bases, from slow, greasy blues to big band Louis Jordan swing to “Tequila.” The capacity crowd was primed for the girl singer.

Jewel Brown is a veteran, one of those old school vocalists whose conversational approach aligns with any R&B style that’s available. On in years, she spent the entire set seated in front of a music stand with the lyrics for reference, but nothing could dampen her ardor, neither old age nor the heat. She was constantly preaching, getting the band–all Japanese players – and the crowd, to “pick it up,” “get it moving,” and “slowing it down a bit,” as the case may be.

It might have been more appropriate to watch such a swinging, rocking (or “rolling,” a word Brown used quite a bit) show in a smokey night club or auditorium, but Heaven was perfect, and the old gal obviously enjoyed every minute of it. We did too. 

Whither Orange Court?

Mark Thompson photo

The current state of the former Orange Court. In the distance is the Cafe de Paris and an amusement area featuring buskers, a drum circle, and bowling alley.

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When we first saw Jim O’Rourke’s name on the Fuji roster it was attached to someone named Gaman Gilberto, which we naively assumed was some sort of Brazilian collaborator – O’Rourke doing bossa nova is hardly a novel idea. Actually, it’s the name of his backing band, all Japanese musicians. “Gaman” is Japanese for “patience” or “fortitude.”

O’Rourke has lived in Japan for the past decade-plus and seems appropriately acclimatized. His music hasn’t change drastically, though in a sense it has regressed to a kind of nostalgia for ‘70s singer-songwriters. Still, his noon set at the Field of Heaven was full of quirk, starting with his getup. Gnomish in his favorite soft hat, baggy jeans, carework shirt and full beard liberally streaked with gray, he was the anti-rock star, a sensibility confirmed a little story he told at one point in his shaky but serviceable Japanese about how drummers in the 80s always wore the same thing on stage and he hated it.

Though the songs were conventionally structured, O’Rourke expanded them with long introductions and coda that adhered to the ‘90s indie dynamic template of soft-loud-soft-loud ad infinitum. Some of the grooves were so strong as to threaten the equilibrium of the ensemble, who couldn’t quite keep up with their leaders volume choices. And the quieter passages were so delicate you could hear O’Rourke breathing. As for the singing, he was in key (not a small feat given the thrust of the songs) and could belt like a bluesmaster. 

Deadmau5: Kicking a dead mouse

The DJ-dance guy known as Deadmau5 went on just after the sun set, when the sky was still a deep blue in the west, behind the Green Stage. Our experience with this sort of big beat electronic dance music has mostly been at the Red Marquee in the middle of the night, so the timing seemed a little strange. And as the guy in the creepy mouse head hit his second or third climax we wondered if any of the thousands of people in the vast field jumping up and down could explain to us what made Deadmau5 better than any of those other beep-boop-beep-beep DJs, because we know he gets paid a truckload of money for one of these gigs. We won’t deny how effective he is at getting people to move, but there isn’t a whole lot of nuance to what he does. 

We’re in the mood for ska

The Man
Mark Thompson photo

The foundations of the Naeba Shokudo are shaken nightly after the Green Stage shuts down. And every night you are guaranteed a bands that have no problem getting up-close and personal with their fans. Aside from the keyboardist and drummer, every member of ska powerhouse The Man took a stroll through the crowd while playing. And they blew the roof off the mother. 

Lost & found

You could fill the love at Saturday evening’s Belle & Sebastian show and Stewart Murdoch could do no wrong, rocking his new threads, purchased in haste after his luggage was lost in transit. His said his new shoes hurt but when you have fans this adoring and perform so perfectly, he could have worn a striped tank top and sweat pants, and we still wouldn’t care. 

Galactic: Funky, Spacey

For reasons that haven’t been explained but are probably easy to guess, the scheduling is a lot looser this year, so there isn’t a lot of overlap of shows from one stage to the next.

We were keen to catch New Orleans modern funk ensemble Galactic at the Field of Heaven on Sunday night, which means we missed Muse on the main stage, but there wasn’t anyone playing at White until well after 10.

Galactic played a trio of instrumentals to open. Greasy, spacey stuff, highlighted by a trombone player who was so fast you could barely keep up with him.

Then their special guest, Macy Gray, came out in a silver evening gown and a fake feather boa, accompanied by two backup singers. Macy’s pretty spacey, too, and though her own brand of soul music is more urban than Galactic’s usual fare, it was an excellent pairing, and the crowd immediately responded. Like the best shows at Heaven, the audience and the artist locked into a mutual groove that only intensified as the set continued, even when Macy was off stage. 

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Super Furry Animals: Animal logic

Super Furry Animals
Super Furry Animals | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Super Furry Animals
Super Furry Animals | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Super Furry Animals
Super Furry Animals | Mark Thompson photo

Twenty One Pilots: High flying

Twenty One Pilots
Twenty One Pilots | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Twenty One Pilots
Twenty One Pilots | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Twenty One Pilots
Twenty One Pilots | Mark Thompson photo

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. 

Aqualung/Nate Ruess: White guys

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.

Fermin Muguruza: Ska’s the limit

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.

Foo Fighters: The real thing

Foo Fighters
Foo Fighters | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Rafven | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Some things can’t be categorized.

Motorhead: More guitar

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: Late in the afternoon

Kitty, Daisy and Lewis
Kitty, Daisy and Lewis | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Kitty, Daisy and Lewis
Kitty, Daisy and Lewis | Mark Thompson photo

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.

Kitty, Daisy and Lewis
Kitty, Daisy and Lewis | Mark Thompson photo

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.

There was no better place to be.