Thom Yorke: Substitutes accepted

Thom Yorke @ the White Stage
Thom Yorke on the White Stage | Mark Thompson photos

As the leader of Radiohead, arguably the most influential rock group of the last 20 years, Thom Yorke has both invited expectations and confounded them. His headlining set at the White Stage on Friday seemed to prove this. It seemed odd that his set was sparsely attended at first, though after the Chemical Brothers finished their own set over at the Green Stage, the audience swelled appreciably. And yet, no one displayed a particular compelling interest in what Yorke was doing. They were fascinated, but also perplexed.

Thom Yorke @ the White Stage
Thom Yorke @ the White Stage

Yorke is a god of technology. He uses his musical interests to further the form, and his fans indulge this pretense. For the first half of the performance, Yorke was absorbed in the process of making difficult music, clearly acting out on stage, spinning about, dancing ecstatically, playing his bass while co-conspirator Nigel Godrich made good on his musical ideas. There was no drummer, but somehow the pair made a rhythmic pulse that permeated the audience. We were transfixed, even if we didn’t know why.

Thom Yorke @ the White Stage

No one would mistake the Yorke show for a Radiohead performance, though I Imagine that a few attendants may have been expecting as much. It was fluid and startling, anti-pop that made good on the prospect that pop would survive.

Thom Yorke @ the White Stage

Chemical Brothers: Standard bearers

While I was walking to the Chemical Brothers set at the Green Stage, a lot of people passed me, apparently upset that they might miss the opening notes. Some were running, but an equal number were skipping, obviously delighted at the prospect of seeing their idols.

Though I have not positive evidence, I would surmise that the Chemical Brothers have headlined the Green Stage more than any other artist, and while it would seem that over-exposure would diminish their chances, in Japan, and specifically at Fuji Rock, the exposure has only intensified their popularity, and it’s easy to see why.

Their specific style of dance music is custom built for huge fields, expansive and large-bodied, and the crowd was pumping and jumping for most of their two hour set. It’s odd. Fridays are often the odd man out at Fuji, but today was packed.

Some said it was Thom Yorke, who followed the Chemicals at the White Stage, but they weren’t that many people when Yorke’s set started. The Chemicals were the draw, and for the most obvious of reasons: They met people’s expectations in the past, and were sure to do so this time as well.

Mitski: Not your usual lipstick

Mitsuki @ the Red Marquee
Mitski @ the Red Marquee | Mark Thompson photos

Though hardly a homecoming, Mitski’s headlining show at the Red Marquee on Friday acknowledged her Japanese heritage, even if she mostly grew up overseas and sings exclusively in English. After her third song, she finally addressed the audience in Japanese, in a way that sounded predetermined, as if it were part of a script for the show itself. Though I felt nothing myself, I could feel a chill settle over the room.

Mitsuki @ the Red Marquee
Mituki @ the Red Marquee

But Mitski is chilly by default. Her particular brand of indie pop is predicated on the sexual breakup and heartache that follows, and while her lyrics are blunt and expressive, they portray a personality that over-thinks romance. During the performance, she was often sitting at a desk-table, as if interviewing or being interviewed for a job. Her gestures were grand and quite suggestive: she was essentially borrowing show biz tropes from classic R&B, laying out seductively on the table, shifting her hips, raising her arms in spasmodic ecstasy, even while she sang about some guy who had gutted her with his insincerity.

Mitsuki @ the Red Marquee
Mitski @ the Red Marquee

The music was often both exciting and off-putting, but never boring or staid. “I’m not wearing my usual lipstick,” she sang as she kicked up her heels. She wanted you to want her, but it was still all an act.

Mitsuki @ the Red Marquee
Mitski @ the Red Marquee

And while the audience was definitely intrigued, they couldn’t get past the facade, which was deliberate and performative. It wasn’t until the end of the set, when the music became more conventionally rockfish and Mitski seemed more at ease that she opened up, admitting in Japanese that she didn’t really know what day it was. That’s the life of the performer, and you could hear the crowd release a collective sigh of empathy.

Janelle Monae: Pink is the color

Janelle Monae @ the Green Stage
Janelle Monae @ the Green Stage | Mark Thompson photos

It’s pretty standard for an R&B singer to go through a slew of costume changes during a performance, and during her hour-long set at the Green Stage Janelle Monae did a slew of them. But there was a definitely thematic pattern: from Nutcracker-like military drag to African monarch to embodiment of female sexual agency there was method to her sartorial madness, and as in the great tradition of the soul revue everything flowed from one song to another. Monae’s computer sex metaphors and robotic dance moves notwithstanding, it was a thoroughly human show, steeped in black-queer consciousness and a wry understanding of the theatrical.


“I’m tired of Republicans telling me how to feel,” she said at the end of a particularly potent rap-rant, underscoring her need to be in the moment, and she was definitely cognizant of Fuji’s charms, effusing about the fact that we was not just in Japan at last, but that she was in this “magical place,” which wasn’t just a reference to the green mountain in front of her, but the hordes of people holding their cell phones aloft, creating that canopy of stars she sang about. “Love is light,” she said, before breaking in “Electric Lady,” a singalong with maybe the easiest chorus in the world, but it said something that the crowd raised their collective voice in tribute. Monae, it should be pointed out, has one of the most infectious smiles in show biz.

Janelle Monae @ the Green Stage
Janelle Monae @ the Green Stage

“Memories are tiny, but then they are stacked on each other,” she said in a way to express how this performance would become part of the fabric of her life. During “Pynk” she flaunted her feminine queerness in no uncertain terms and demanded afterwards that marginalized people be allowed their happiness (which seemed dependent, she stated, on Trump’s impeachment).

Green Stage lights up for Janelle Monae
Green Stage lights up for Janelle Monae

But she didn’t forget what people were there for and did “”The Way You Make Me Feel” by her mentor, Prince, and finished up with a JB-worthy rendition of “Tight Rope” that had approximately 23 different endings. I looked around and saw everyone dancing, but especially women. She was theirs.

Janelle Monae @ the Green Stage
Janelle Monae @ the Green Stage

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard: Metal mensches

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard | Mark Thompson photos

The estimable, prolific Aussie garage band had a rude awakening on their first-ever Asian tour. This week, in addition to their Fuji Rock appearance at the White Stage, their first ever in Japan, they were supposed to play the Jisan Rock Festival in South Korea, but the whole festival was cancelled at the last minute. The fact that KG&TLW were the only major foreign act on the roster may give you some indication why it was cancelled.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

More for us, I guess, and the most surprising thing about the Gizzards live is that they don’t come across anything like a garage band, or even a psychedelic outfit, another qualifier that tends to get attached to their work. They’re essentially a metal band, but a metal band with the narrowest metal priorities. Even when they take the piss, it often seems as if they feel obligated to do so. “Turn it up Sammy,” guitarist Joey Walker said as they opened up with a killer speed metal riff that abruptly stopped and turned into something else — but on a dime, mind you.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

The fact that the Wizards didn’t dip into their vast psych-folk-experimental well and concentrated just on headbangers shows they know their audience, and the already sizable crowd kept growing as passers by glommed onto the fun under a slate grey sky. But this was serious fun. The band sports two drummers, which is automatically cool, but there’s none of that Dead-Allmans contrapuntal bullshit. They played in lockstep, and while the patterns were sometimes complicated their main purpose was force and precision. The bass player stands behind them, obviously afraid he’ll miss something. The three guitarists were not exactly hot stuff, but they knew how to play against each other. What they dig about metal is that mensch-like attention to the smallest detail. Stu Mackenzie’s stentorian vocals fit the music to a T, and while the visual aesthetic is a scruffy bunch of high schoolers, they learned their lessons only too well.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

It wasn’t until the last song, the iconic “There Is No Planet B” that the Lizards singular sense of humor finally made itself felt. The song was heavy metal heaven with a shot of prof-rockfish elan. And the sound was absolutely stellar. What garage band goes for high fidelity? Nice job, Sammy.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
Crowdsurfing at King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

Shame: Elbows out

Shame @ Red Marquee
Shame @ Red Marquee | Mark Thompson photos

The South London post-punk quintet Shame seemed an ill fit for the Red Marquee, especially at lunch time, though something might be said for watching the band do their singular thing on an empty stomach. The music is lean and uncompromising, punchy with melody and rhythmic breaks that feel like trap doors being released. It was their first trip to Fuji and the band seemed more stoked at the prospect than the crowd was — at the beginning, anyway. Once the group got going there was no question they were glad they came.

Shame @ Red Marquee
Shame @ Red Marquee

Charlie Steen is the kind of vocalist who looks as if he’d punch you out one minute and then turn around and buy you a pint the next. He was aggressive about the audience being into the music, which is sort of gauche for post-punk acts. When the band got wound up he was all elbows and swinging fists, though he couldn’t hold a candle in the manic energy department to bass player Josh Finerty, a short bloke who — in true Angus Young style — seemed to be everywhere at once. In fact, the stage really wasn’t big enough for the band, which needs room to act out their cynical political rags. If the drummer wasn’t obliged to stay behind his kit he probably would have been jumping into the audience.

Shame @ Red Marquee
Shame @ Red Marquee

As the pace quickened and the songs gathered force, the audience pressed forward until the band and the crowd were practically one. Steen was in his element, punk Christ-like, bare-chested, aching for a drink probably. He seemed genuinely touched by the Japanese crowd’s obvious boost in interest and took advantage of it. In a way, I was actually glad they didn’t do their version of “Rock Lobster,” whose louche dance style would have put a kibosh on what had turned out to be a primo rock show in the classic sense. Just watch out for those elbows.

Shame @ Red Marquee
Shame @ Red Marquee

Piping it in

AND THEY’RE OFF | Mark Thompson photos

The 2019 Fuji Rock Festival officially kicked off at 8 p.m. on Thursday night with the big fireworks display. Up until that point it was the usual fare: bon odori followed by a lottery drawing. The folks on hand could attend for free, because that’s the way Fuji rolls on the night before the actual festival starts. It’s supposed to be a celebration in appreciation of the local folks, but over the years it’s turned into something much different. It’s essentially a show of commitment by the Fuji Faithful, those who show up year after year regardless of the headliners or the weather. And this year, the faithful showed up in force. By the time the fireworks started, you could hardly move.

Part of the problem, if you can call it that, was that people to the north of the main platform were exercising their right to sit, in camp chairs, a situation that’s becoming increasingly dense during the festival, but was practically unheard of during the prefest party in the past. Consequently, the line around the food court moved at a snail’s pace. At least people stood up when the fireworks went off.

Of course, everybody moved over to the Red Marquee when the first of the evening’s live acts, the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, did their half hour set. The band, which is essentially an earnest cover band with bagpipers for novelty effect, captivated the audience completely. All bands who deign to play the opening slot at the prefest party are undeniable hits, because those who show up are raring to go; ready to party, and probably drunk enough to make good on that claim. Realistically, it was almost impossible to get even into the tent, the place was so packed. The repertoire was predictable: Journey, Queen, Deep Purple riffs. But with bagpipes substituting for classic guitar lines, how could anyone resist?

And then it finally started raining, though no one seemed to mind, and not just because the majority of punters were inside the tent. “Don’t Stop Believing” and “We Will Rock You” are pretty bullet proof songs, even on bagpipes. Or maybe I should say water proof?

It promises to be a great weekend.

Fuji Rock 2019: A word before you go


We’ve seen the worst of times and the best of times at Fuji Rock. And we’ve been more than a few times. So here are some tips, both musical and practical from Philip Brasor, Elliott Samuels, Mark Thompson and Alyssa I. Smith.

Also, make sure you’ve gone down the FRF survival checklist. Sure, the selection of amenities sold at the camping site and on the festival grounds has improved over the years, but it’s also likely they’ll be considerably more expensive … so save yourself the hassle and the yen by planning ahead.

Must-see shows

  • ES: The Comet is Coming: It’s possible The Cure may indeed end up playing for three hours to close the festival as it did back in 2013, but this electrifying electronic jazz trio could actually be as epoch-ending as its name suggests …
  • ES: Khruangbin: No one knows exactly how to pronounce its name, but this trio from Houston, Texas, produces psychedelic grooves that takes its influences from places as diverse as Thailand, Afghanistan and Iran. It’s like crate digging without a record player.
  • ES: Vaudou Game: This where the party starts. Think James Brown meets Fela Kuti and throw in some 1970s funk from Togo, Benin and Nigeria for good measure. This Afrofunk outfit is playing twice on Sunday and so you’ve really got no excuse to miss its infectious jams.
  • PB: King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard: Wigged-out psychedelic garage rock from Australia that’s way cooler than you, though they may not look it.
  • PB: Janelle Monae: She dances! She sings! She raps! She acts in movies! She may even have sex with robots, but in any case she’s the biggest star at this year’s fest even if she isn’t a headliner, and her stage show is just that side of mind-blowing.
  • MT: Yaeji: Will the weather be in sync with “raingurl”? At least, Red Marquee has a roof.

Solid bets 

  • MT: Shibusashirazu Orchestra: A surrealist troupe of gypsies par excellence. How many musicians and dancers they’ll pack on to the stage this year is anyone’s guess.
  • MT: Chemical Brothers: They never fail not to fill space in front of the Green Stage with the block-rockin’ beats. Since you don’t really need to see them pump their fists in the air from up close, probably best viewed from on top of the hill, for the full visual spectacle.
  • MT: Jim West: Spinner of rare vinyl guaranteed it put you back in the groove. You’ll find him almost every night at Blue Galaxy’s DJ tent.
  • MT: Takkyu Ishino: Alas, it might be awhile before we see Pierre onstage for Denki Groove, at least we have half.

Blast from the past

  • ES: The Cure: Even if you’ve already sat through every single song these goth icons have ever produced at their headline performance in 2013, we’re talking about a line-up of glorious tormented stadium rock melodies that are a perfect final curtain call for a Fuji Rock Sunday on the Green Stage. 
  • PB: The Waterboys: Mike Scott’s albums are not quite as effortlessly soulful as they were back in the early ‘90s, but his live shows never flag, and with Japan as his new second home, the Scottish-Irish troubadour should be in his element. 
  • MT: Cake: “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”


Call us curious

  • MT: Sia: Will she even be on the stage? 
  • MT: Daito Manabe: Probably better known for his video/electronic art.
  • MT: Matador! Soul Sounds: Offshoots of The New Mastersounds and Soulive. Sure to make it funky.
  • ES: Thom Yorke: Having not followed much of the Radiohead frontman’s solo work, his recently released third album, “Anima,” sounds almost like noise that has been deconstructed and reassembled into someone’s never-ending nightmare. The final track on the album’s even called “Impossible Knots,” which sounds like a painful mind-bending experience if we’ve ever heard one.
  • PB: DYGL: This Anglophone Japanese rock quartet comes across on record as being sly and capable but somehow subdued. If they loosen up, it could be very good.
  • PB: The Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band: The name sounds like a ringer, but this Thai group reportedly plays club jazz and funk on traditional instruments. Color me intrigued.


Must indulge

  • MT: Pizzeria La locanda del pittore Iwappara
  • MT: Sours at Tokoro Tengoku as you dip your feet/head in the river
  • MT: Coffee at Field of Heaven 
  • ES: Hang out at the Blue Galaxy DJ tent near the international food court/bar between the Red Marquee and Green Stage. If you’re lucky, you might even find an empty chair nearby.
  • ES: Drag yourself all the way to the area near the Café de Paris when you’re feeling like you need a break. Featuring random buskers, activities such as 10-pin bowling and slacklines, AND Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, it offers a true oasis to escape the musical intensity when you need to.

Must pack

  • MT: Fully charged portable battery charger and all the right cables. There are a few charging stations near stages, but who wants to waste time?
  • ES: A pocket flashlight. You really don’t know what you’re missing until you can’t see anything at all.
  • PB: Small towels for whatever. Band-aids
  • AS: A folding chair so you’re guaranteed a comfortable place to sit even when the ground gets muddy. Something light and easy to pack. 
  • AS: A hat. Handy for any kind of weather, rain or shine. 

Pro tips

  • MT: Factor in the fact that unless that you’re staying near the festival entrance, you’ll gonna need at least one bar of energy to walk back to your bed/futon/sleeping bag. Alternatively, you could just pass out the Palace of Wonder.
  • ES: If you do decide to choose rain boots over other forms of footwear (the perennial Fuji Rock conundrum), slip some comfy sole supports into the bottom of them. After standing for much of the day, your feet will certainly thank you for them. 
  • PB: Heineken is the official beer vendor, but it’s worth waiting until you get to the Field of Heaven or further for a brew, since they have some craft beer stands out that way. Also, in the World Food Court there are British beers. 


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

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.

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.


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)

Prefest is best


We pulled into Naeba through the tunnel expecting rain, since that’s what was forecast. Instead, we were met with overcast skies studded with patches of blue. A pleasant surprise, for sure, though, given the serendipity of nature, I wouldn’t want to venture on how long that will last.


As usual, the prefestival party, open to all for free, was packed. The Bon Odori event in the middle of the Oasis rocked the crowd, who didn’t seem that interested in the lottery (ticket stub numbers) that was conceived to make people interested. People were already interested. Fuji Rock is interesting by definition.

It’s mostly a matter of anticipation. Three days of nonstop partying and excellent music ahead of them, the crowd that shows up for the prefestival party wants to get ahead of everybody else. They probably expect too much. They probably laugh too much. They definitely drink too much. When the fireworks marking the official start of the festival take off at 8 pm, they go batshit (which isn’t surprising–the Japanese do fireworks better than anyone), thus making the spectacle that much more spectacular.


And, of course, they anticipate that prefest act that will transport them, which is natural to expect. Tonight there were various Japanese acts, all excellent and appreciated, but the main event was Doctor Prats, a Basque dance rock ensemble that fit the bill to a T.

Loyal Fujirock lieutenant Koichi Hanafusa came out before the band took the Red Marquee stage and gave a rather long-winded introduction, saying how the prefest party had become such a tradition that it had been memorialized in a book, no less, and then, of course, he had a photographer take a picture of the crowd, which was enormous and chomping at the bit. He introduced the band as being in the tradition of “revolutionary” Basque groups like Furgin Mugurizuka and Manu Chao, and in that regard Doctor Prats did not disappoint. For the next 30 minutes the crowd jumped and pumped to the organic breakbeats and clever stage choreography. They did exactly as they were supposed to do. They were the perfect audience, because they wanted to be. Undoubtedly, it was the best show Doctor Prats had ever done in their career so far. The prefest party guaranteed nothing less. 

(Text: Philip Brasor; photos: Mark Thompson)

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?