Vampire Weekend: Sunday night exorcism

Mark Thompson photos

Now that we think of it, it was a good idea for the festival to slot headliner Bob Dylan in the penultimate position on Sunday night. Dylan’s dusty set, though exciting and satisfying, didn’t actually fulfill the main task of a headlining slot, which is to send the audience home with a feeling that they’d experienced something profound and energizing. Dylan mostly just satisfied people’s expectations.

Vampire Weekend, on the other hand, got people to dance, and it was gratifying to see the field in front of the Green Stage shimmy and shake to VW’s Africanized indie rock. Though every bit as conceptual as Dirty Projectors, VW is dedicated to the idea that indie rock has to be fun first, and the revamped version of the band that closed the weekend on the Green Stage hit high point after high point, as if they were a jam band looking for the sweet spot.

They were also suitably relaxed. Leader Ezra Koenig wore shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt, commenting that they had prepared to play in the rain and so it was a pleasant surprise that they didn’t have to. The audience was just grateful for a chance to boogie on dry ground, but, truthfully, didn’t seem to know how to react when Danielle Haim of Haim came out and joined the band for a version of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.” It’s not exactly the kind of song that one would find in VM’s wheelhouse.

Bob Dylan: A hard catalogue’s gonna fall

Mark Thompson photo

It was perhaps indicative of what was expected of Bob Dylan at Fuji Rock that he was slotted not last, but rather as the penultimate act of the last day. Some might have thought he needed an early bedtime, given his age. Some others speculated that Smash wanted him to play during dusk, a risky proposition considering the weather. As it happened, the weather was exquisite. As to whether Dylan performed to the task is a matter of conjecture.

In any case, he actually started early, about four minutes early, with “Things Have Changed.” He stood at the piano and pounded out the chords to the dirge-like composition, turning it as best he could into a rock song. This was, he obviously realized, a “rock” festival.

He remained at the piano for the whole show, never once picking up a guitar. Nobody seemed to mind, though quite a few folks reacted viscerally when Dylan tooted on his harmonica.

But, in fact, he did play rock songs, or, at least adapted his deep catalogue to rock tropes.  He did a few blues numbers that were reconfigured as rock songs, The only two folk songs he did were “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Blowing in the Wind,” but he rendered them as soft rock concoctions, piano based. “Highway 61” was cool but no longer essential.

The most animated he got was on “Desolation Row,” which was changed into an R&B tune. His version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” made famous by the Band, was almost incomprehensible, what with all the mumbling, and the sound booth didn’t bother to correct it. Does everyone in Japan know the words?

In the end, Dylan’s set was professional without being particularly exciting. The Jumbotron crew never took their camera off Dylan, an insult to the fine musicians who play with him. The fact that a lot of people, including myself, knew the titles of all the songs he played only goes to prove we probably know too much.

Dylan is in an enviable position. He’s got a huge back catalogue that everyone knows. He can play them any way he wants, and that seems to be the whole point of his neverending tour.

Kendrick Lamar: Taking it to the fields

Much has been made of the literary calibre of this year’s festival. There’s a Nobel Prize winner playing Sunday and a Pulitzer Prize winner on Saturday, though, as a matter of fact, Kendrick Lamar won the latter in the music category, which means he was being recognized more for his beats than for his rhymes, but it’s those rhymes that deserve the awards.

The rain-soaked crowd at the Green Stage had to wait a bit, but in the end Kendrick’s stage production was actually rather austere, as if he were taking Japanese aesthetic sense to the limit. An odd generic Asian video played before he came out (Kendrick is also playing South Korea on this trip), and at one point during the show a ninja appeared at the edge of the stage, as well as an avant-garde type dancer flitting across the back, but for the most part it was just Kendrick for the full 90 minutes. No chorus lines or back dancers. No supplemental MC. Even the musicians were in the shadows. The only distraction visually was the high-waisted overalls he wore. He looked as if he were going fly fishing after the show.

Opening with “DNA” Kendrick was assertive and confident, and remained so during the show. There were no star theatrics, no attempts to get the crowd to sing along or jump in unison (a big thing this weekend). He did make sure he covered ground, reaching as far back as 2012 for some older songs. In line with his general demeanor as an artist, it was a serious performance, built on words and ideas rather than beats and samples and riffs.

Since the fans near the front knew these words by heart, they got the most out of the show, because they saw how much this stuff means to Kendrick. It’s very doubtful that the Nobel Prize winner playing on Sunday will show half as much passion for his work, but it’s not just because he’s almost 80. He’s a bit farther from his youthful passions than Kendrick is.

N.E.R.D: No one ever really dries up

Pharrell | Mark Thompson photos

Pharrell Williams’ and Chad Hugo’s NERD project started out a little hip-hop and a lot of rock. It was a resource that allowed Pharrell to dabble in stuff outside of rap and R&B that he was interested in, but over the years the rock component, which is what made the act interesting, has mostly fallen by the wayside, and Hugo was supplemented and then supplanted by rapper Shay Haley.

This is the version that headlined the Green Stage Friday night, and while they did a few NERD songs, for the most part it was a hip-hop revue, featuring “classics” by Snoop, Easy E, Beyoncé, and several by Saturday night’s headliner, Kendrick Lamar. Maybe some of these artists were produced by Williams and Hugo as the Neptunes. For sure, they also did Daft Punk’s hit, “Lucky,” which Pharrell wrote. But the only rock component was Pharrell’s continuous insistence that the crowd open up circles so that punters could make a mosh pit. He even chided security for not letting the moshing take place. “This isn’t America,” he said.

No, it’s Japan, a country Pharrell knows well, and for what it’s worth, he had the large crowd in the palm of his hand, directing the half dozen dancers as well as the whole audience to jump and boogie on cue. The guy is a consummate professional, an entertainer whose instincts are irreproachable. Who cares if he borrows some stuff?


Years & Years: Maximum R&B

Years & Years
Years & Years|mark thompson photo

There probably won’t be a more enthusiastic performer at the festival this weekend than Olly Alexander, the lead singer and central reason for the British synth-pop band Years & Years. Dressed in knit boxer trunks, a cropped tank top, thicks chains, and sporting a red coiffure, Alexander was so beside himself with joy at having the opportunity to hold down the late afternoon slot at the Green Stage, that he couldn’t stop talking about it. He preened for the TV cameras and every so often who scoot out to the end of the stage to catch a glimpse of himself on the jumbotron. “Kawaii!” a Japanese guy next to me screamed in appreciation.

Years & Years
Years & Years|mark thompson photo

It helps that Alexander is a great, idiosyncratic dancer, because his pop is really post-house R&B with full attention paid to rave culture. Every song passes through a break beat on the way from lyric to chorus. “Karma” was, in fact, one extended break beat. The audience grooved as one.

Years & Years
Years & Years|mark thompson photo

Though the set was occasionally interrupted by a balled, the bulk of the material was essentially quiet storm taken to its salacious conclusions. Sex wasn’t mentioned outright, but even the backup singers busted some pretty suggestive moves. “I don’t want this gig to ever end,” Alexander said near the end. Good sex is like that.

Glim Spanky: Mystic in the mountains

Remi Matsuo has one of those voices that feels slightly off, neither smooth nor husky, built for talking more than singing, which makes her Celtic-tinged melodies all the more compelling when she does sing them, strumming fitfully on her oversized electric guitar.

Glim Spanky owes a lot to 70 Brit psych bands like Pink Floyd and middle-period Led Zeppelin, but there’s a lot of Fairport Convention in the interplay between Matsuo and ace guitarist Hiroki Kamemoto, and while the band doesn’t trade in harmonies, the lilt of the melodies marred to Matsuo’s studied reticence is quite moving, especially when the band rocks out, which they often do.

It being the early afternoon on a Friday, the crowd at the Green Stage was sparse. This is really midnight music, or even dusk music. The haunting quality of the sound set against Matsuo’s flame-red hair and her diaphanous hippie duds made for a striking tableau. You wanted people to pay more attention.

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.

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)

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.

Yogee New Waves / Group Tamashii: Dirty minds under cloudy skies

Forecasts to the contrary, the opening day of Fuji Rock 17 was hot and overcast. There was a sprinkling of rain around 11 a.m., but then the sun came out, sending everyone prematurely to the tents for beer and water and sports drinks. Some things never change.

But one subtle change that was noted several weeks ago by Patrick St. Michel in the Japan Times was notable: the preponderance of Japanese acts at this year’s festival (and, for that matter, at Fuji’s rival, Summer Sonic, as well). There are a number of good reasons why there should be a preponderance of Japanese acts at Fuji, the most prominent being that we are in Japan, goddammit, and there are a lot of great bands here. Except for the Spanish hybrid rock outfit, Doctor Prats, who wowed ‘em at the Red Marquee last night and launched the White Stage this morning, the opening acts on all the stages were locals.

Yogee New Waves


We caught some of Yogee New Waves’ disco surf pop at the Field of Heaven before bolting for the Green Stage to see Group Tamashii, a band whose presence as the main opening act sums up this presumed turn to domestic product rather starkly. Fuji Rock is a huge draw for foreigners, and not just those who live in Japan. Last night we met several groups of Asians who had flown in to spend the whole weekend, many with their families in tow. Though Group Tamashii is a rocking good show, they’re also Japanese to the extreme. Actually, they’re a comedy group, and you know what they say about how humor translates…

Group Tamashii

Group Tamashii

Dressed ostentatiously in leather, the group has pretty much one theme: Sex, and not sex as an enjoyable pastime or a seminal aspect of living, but as a joke. Moreover, a dirty joke. Lead singer Hakai, who occasionally bombarded the audience with cheap plastic slippers he flung like frisbees, kept up a steady stream of blue language — he didn’t even bother with double entendres — that left the Japanese chuckling and the rest of us scratching our heads.

Group Tamashii

Group Tamashii | MARK THOMPSON

It’s not that we don’t understand sex jokes when we hear them—at one point, the portly backup singer Baito-kun came out dressed as a school girl and Hakai said, “Your clitoris is showing”—but these gags were soaked in Japanese pop culture, referencing names and situations that only Japanese people would be familiar with. (There was a five-minute routine about Kabuki guild names that had the Japanese in stitches) Given that Fuji prides itself on being a family-friendly event, one had to wonder what some of the Japanese parents thought.

Group Tamashii

Group Tamashii | MARK THOMPSON

Prurience aside, Group Tamashii is a nifty, tight little outfit, slaloming smoothly from thrash metal to punk to a disco song about sushi and a pretty faithful Michael Jackson parody. Actually, the foreigners who don’t know any Japanese and anything about Japanese pop culture probably got the better deal: It was a nice way to rock in the weekend.

Denki Groove: Hardest working electronica prankster in business

We were quite happy to see that the organizers revived the post-headliner party at the Green Stage on Sunday night. This year they asked those electronica pranksters to provide the music, perhaps as a nod to the fact that the group is celebrating their 25th year in show business, and they were perfect.

Denki Groove

Denki Groove | Mark Thompson photo

Sporting one of his famous top hats, Pierre Taki held the stage and the audience’s attention while partner Takkyu Ishino manned the boards, though he had a lot to add, vocally, to the performance. Of course, they played “Shangri-La” and all the hits, though at this point “hits” is a relative term for a group whose stage strategy is to be as spontaneous and in-the-moment as possible.

Denki Groove

Denki Groove | Mark Thompson photo

We were sort of wandering around, marveling at the variety of dancing that was going on. It was as if everyone had received a second (third?) wind that would blow them into the next week. First they have to make it to morning.

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 | 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 | 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 | 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 | 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.

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. 

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.