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.

Ryan Adams: Redemption

We didn’t see the last time Ryan Adams played Fuji, but we heard he was slightly pissed. Not sure why, but in any case his situation wasn’t helped by the fact that press photographers were limited in what they could shoot and there was an announcement before the set at the Red Marquee saying that flash photos from the audience would be a serious problem.

None of these rock star prerogatives made much of an impact on the show. Adams, who is prolific and somewhat contrarian, delivered a classic rock concert, one where guitar histrionics and heartfelt conviction went hand in hand. At first he seems strangely oblivious to the circumstances, wearing a leather jacket in a tent that was smoldering due to the sun. No one held it against him, and his blend of alt-country and classic rock eventually sucked in people who might not have know who he was in the first place but nevertheless knew what they liked.

So even the slower, more sentimental songs made an impact, thanks to Adams’ realization that he was making a difference, at least for the moment. Every subsequent song drew a more emotional response, and by the time he ended on a purely rock number, the audience was in his hands. He didn’t even seem to fathom it. He stood on a monitor and did the rock star thing in a darkened shed. What could be more cliche? But the audience wouldn’t leave. They wanted more as the crew came out to remove the equipment. They were still clapping when I walked away. 

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. 

Todd Rundgren: A true star

We arrived about a minute late for Todd Rundgren’s set on the White Stage and wondered if we were in the wrong place or whether or not Rundgren cancelled. There was a hip-hop DJ on stage playing classic rap and R&B. Then, he suddenly started yelling at the crowd. “Put your hands together for Todd Rundgren!”

And out he came, with two female dancers dressed as anime characters. Potbellied and balding (but what’s left of his hair frosted), he didn’t seem to care about the impression he made, but nevertheless word skin tight pants and a sleeveless T-Shirt. He was a modern star, or at least his sardonic version of one.

And for the next hour he but on a real show, one with strong songs and singing, and even choreography that he joined in with in his own feeble way. If the crowd had come for the hits they would have been disappointed, but they weren’t. Most of the material was from his new album “State,” which is electro-pop, with lyrics that, per Rundgren’s mission, tend to be zeitgeisty, with mentions of Miley Cyrus’s ass and the Internet age. But it wasn’t gratuitous grandstanding. If anything, the words were secondary to the music, which Rundgren has always been fussy about. The audience fell for it.

Of course, there had to be at least one hit, and after the four left the stage, the DJ came out again and incited the crowd, which was on its way out. They returned for “One Dream,” the only song approaching a hit, and a nice showcase for a guitar solo. Some things just don’t change. 

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.


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. 

Txarango: Feet first

Txarango is a Catalan band that’s proud of their roots. They sing in their native language and made a point of teaching the large Sunday morning crowd at the White Stage a few useful phrases, one of which wasn’t “dance your ass off,” because no one needed to be told that. With a healthy complement of horns and a lead singer whose energy level belied the scorching sun overhead, Txarango dips into rock, ska, gypsy party music, all infused with an Iberian regard for rhythm and melody. We’re not sure if it’s a good idea to get yourself so worked up at the beginning of a day that threatens to be hot and dry, but isn’t that why you come to Fuji in the first place? 

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. 


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

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.

Holychild: Meet Cute

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: 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.

Drenge/Joey Badass: Stripped down

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

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

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


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. 

Charanporantan: Retro for brunch

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?