Urban tea party gets lift at beach


Unlike Fuji Rock, that other Japanese music festival, and which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, Summer Sonic is still very much in evolution. It’s an evolution less stylistic than logistical.

The need to accommodate 55,000 people at any one time in a limited urban space — namely a convention center and a baseball stadium in Chiba last weekend, called for imagination. In the past, the main Marine Stage offered a variety of major acts, from hip-hop to pop, Western and Japanese, while centering mainly on the kind of heavy rock that tends to go over well in a stadium. This year, though, the Marine Stage acts were metal, hard rock and emo/punk.

The Island Stage, which was banished from inside the convention center to a park near the stadium, was almost all Japanese acts. Most of the fun and spontaneity to be had was on the isolated Beach Stage.

SS’s somewhat Draconian crowd control methods can make the patrons feel like cattle, but cattle like to graze, and while certain festivalgoers did do what the organizers hoped they’d do — plant themselves in front of one stage or another for longs stretches — most went from stage to stage.

In the convention center, where the Sonic Stage and the Mountain Stage were separated by huge blocks of concessions and sub-stages offering manzai (comedy routines), karaoke, and an air-guitar competition, people instinctively planned ahead.

The Kooks, a perfectly decent but unextraordinary British guitar band, were no doubt thrilled with the big crowd that greeted them at the Mountain Stage on Sunday afternoon, but if you were in the back you’d notice a lot of people sleeping on the floor or chatting on their cell phones.

They came because they wanted to secure a spot for the next band, Arctic Monkeys, and they were wise to do so. Once the Monkeys’ set started, the hall was so packed that security closed the entrance. The same thing happened for Daft Punk. If you arrived five minutes late, you listened through the wall.

One of the venues, Makuhari Messe, was also hosting The Great Dinosaur Exhibition during SS, and a friend wondered if it was a reference to Metallica. Judging from the quality of their headlining show at the Marine Stage on Saturday, while they’re not, strictly speaking, dinosaurs, they’re definitely ready for Vegas. This is a band that knows exactly what its audience wants and spares no expense to give it to them. They even played from beginning to end the “Master of Puppets” album from 1986 that many critics consider the greatest metal album of all time, making an announcement through the PA introducing the album in Japanese, just so everyone was aware of this portentous moment. It illustrated that they’re rich adults with different priorities than those of the hard-drinking headbangers they were at 21.

But more importantly, metal no longer possesses any sort of transgressive cachet. It’s the soundtrack of sports, the music that plays behind National Football League games.

Come to think of it, all the groups that played at Marine Stadium are ready for Vegas.

Puffy’s set on the Island Stage was similar to the one they played last year at SS. Ami and Yumi have been doing their cute thing so long they’ve become jaded.

Nelly Furtado was more adorable. She won hearts not so much with her infectious pop and R&B, but with her sparkly sincerity. The effervescent Canadian apologized for never having played Japan before. Everybody cheered. “No, no,” she corrected them. “You should be booing me.”

What was a hardened rapper from East London, albeit one with an acoustic guitar, doing on the otherwise mellow Beach Stage? Ben Drew, known to his fans as Plan B, may have thought the same thing. Only about 30 people showed up and Drew seemed disappointed. Opening with a fake radio show of a smarmy announcer dissing Plan B (“ungodly music”), something that Ice Cube used to do, the 35-minute set was rich with vitriol. Each song started with an angry tirade and developed into a violent and depressing story. Remarkably, the audience stayed with him.

It wasn’t the only surprise the Beach Stage had in store. That evening, against the backdrop of a soft, pink sunset, Devendra Banhart introduced his “freak folk” to a Japanese audience for the first time. Banhart’s records are weird enough, but they don’t prepare you for his performance style. Bare-chested and skinny, wearing a huge paste-diamond necklace and sporting a full beard, he shimmied sexily and repeatedly told the audience how “kirei” they were in his trilling voice. He “put the sun to bed” with a ballad followed by a raucous blues number that rocked the crowd to their Birkenstocks.

It was such a magical show that I showed up hoping for more of the same on Sunday evening at sunset to see The Cat Empire from Melbourne. The band’s blend of big-band ska, hip-hop, and world beat was as energetic and expansive as a Springsteen concert. Like Banhart’s, the set was characterized by a loose spontaneity that connected directly with the audience, by far the happiest seen all weekend.

Winners and losers at SS 06

Funniest stage banter: Pete Wentz, Fall Out Boy. Mispronounced the Japanese for “S**t.” As the crowd fell silent, he said, “That’s the not the reaction I was hoping for.”

Most cussing: Plan B. He came, he swore, he conquered.

Oddest stage name: Riverside Garden. A small stage for acoustic acts set up next to a toxic-smelling canal.

Biggest disappearing act: Keane. The balladeers’ no-show was only announced very late indeed.

Least practical dress sense: Matisyahu. Wore his orthodox Jewish getup — long coat, fedora — in the notoriously steaming dance tent.

Best on-stage kiss: Devendra Banhart. The folkie rewarded a male fan invited onto the stage to perform an impromptu song — by planting a fat one smack on his lips.

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