If there was a festival anthem to this year’s Summer Sonic, it was “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” The overflowing crowd at Cyndi Lauper’s Sunday set on the Sonic Stage was mostly made up of women who mouthed every word to her string of hits. And when she finished with her biggest hit, the female members of The Polyphonic Spree and Tilly and The Wall joined her on stage to she-bop ecstatically.
There were a lot of girls having fun at SS: The Pipettes, with their choreographed retro girl-group pop; The Long Blondes, with their Blondie update for the 21st century; Tilly and The Wall, whose percussion parts are handled by a tap dancer rather than a drummer; the pan-Asian female members of the Australian reggae group Blue King Brown, who exuded more soul than anyone else all weekend; the irrepressible Brazilian girls in Cansei de Ser Sexy and Bonde Do Role; and local lass Anna Tsuchiya, with her punk fashionista act.
The only woman who didn’t seem to enjoy herself as much as she should have was Shingai Shoniwa, whose group The Noisettes was the only foreign band (they’re London-based) to play on the Island Stage, and whose bluesy hard rock set seemed to confuse the few people who showed up. I think Shoniwa would have preferred playing on the Mountain Stage with Motorhead.
Clingy short dresses of a pre-’70s look were all the rage among the women performers, but individual sartorial statements are worth noting, such as Lovefoxxx of CSS’ vertically striped leotard; The Pipettes matching polka-dot ensembles; Bonde Do Role’s appetizing takoyaki and crab hats; The Noisettes’ Shoniwa’s silver bloomers; The Polyphonic Spree’s black jumpsuits, from which they changed into white robes festooned with red Rising Suns; Conor Oberst’s Southern gentleman white suit; and Sean Lennon’s raffish facial hair and panama hat.
Black Eyed Peas make ‘history’
The Black Eyed Peas’ top billing at the Marine Stage on Saturday could be considered historic: they are the first black-identified act to headline at either of the two big Japanese rock festivals (the other is Fuji Rock).
Hip-hop purists say they’re too pop, which is a specious complaint, but it was clear watching them perform on the big stage that the group’s star is Fergie, the female singer who propelled them out of the underground and onto your iPod when she joined in 2003. The band’s three rappers, will.i.am, apl.de.ap and Taboo can’t command a stadium, at least not the way Fergie does with her huge voice and gymnastic stage moves.
Arctic Monkeys also looked out of place. Their songs are bright and big enough to fill the space, but frontman Alex Turner doesn’t have the stage presence of James Hetfield, Thom Yorke, Trent Reznor or Marilyn Manson, who have played the Marine Stage in the past and often make more sense in this setting than on record.
‘Like a furnace’
It’s difficult to make a rock festival festive when it’s held in a convention center, but the folks who run the Tokyo end of Summer Sonic do their best.
Every year, they change the locations or positions of the stages in the massive Makuhari Messe (actually in Chiba Prefecture, not Tokyo), and this time, at least in terms of logistics, they came as close to right as ever before.
Despite hosting 60,000 people per day over two days last weekend (40,000 per day in Osaka), there were fewer bottlenecks between stages and only one instance that I know about of a venue being closed because of overcrowding.
The Dance and Island stages were brought back inside. Last year, they were outdoors, which helped soften the concrete-and-steel milieu, but given the weather, maybe the move was for the best. The main venue, the Chiba Marine Stadium, was like a big furnace.
Draconian crowd control has always been SS’ necessary evil, a factor emphasized in the festival’s “warnings and cautions.” They state that customers should choose a stage and stay there for the duration of a given concert so that fire codes can be enforced. This is wishful thinking (as is the rule that there be “no diving, moshing, pushing around or throwing bottles”), but because the stages were more strictly theme-oriented than they’d ever been, it was easier to manifest.
Almost all the hard rock and punk acts played the massive Mountain Stage. Most of the Japanese acts were at the relatively isolated Island Stage, while mellower artists played on the Beach Stage.
Less easy to categorize artists played the Sonic Stage, which did not have an entrance or exit; it was just placed in the middle of the convention center. People passing by could look and stay, or they could keep passing by. If the artists felt like exhibits, well, that’s what you get for agreeing to play at a convention center.
This year, indie-rockers Dinosaur Jr. released their first album featuring the classic lineup of J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph since 1989. The JT caught up with Mascis at an elegant Shibuya cafe the day before his band played an ear-batteringly loud set at Summer Sonic.
Kids dig dinosaurs
When was the last time you were here?
The beginning of the year. I played one acoustic show. It was funny, they played the whole album (“Beyond”) and people stared at the empty chair and the guitar and cheered for songs. I thought that was really weird. And then I played after they’d played the whole album. I’ve never seen a show when they just play a record and everyone’s standing there staring at the stage, as if someone’s playing.
What other festivals have you played so far this year?
Benicassim. It’s pretty cool. We played these small ones, too: one in Norway, one in Sweden, that were out in the woods. They were definitely the coolest ones. You know, it was like 5,000 people instead of 50,000. They seem pretty different (to each other) — the vibe that you get out of it. English ones are getting particularly unpleasant. You can’t even see any bands any more. They don’t let you go on stage when bands are playing unless you know the band or their tour manager.
It’s been two years since Dinosaur Jr. reunited with the original lineup. Are you enjoying yourselves more this time around?
Yeah. We’re definitely having more fun. The tortured days have gone. There’s always some tension, but nothing like before.
What do you think of some of the other recent big reunions?
I really like Mission of Burma. That was kind of inspiring for us, to see that a reunion could not suck. They’re better now than when I saw them before.
Is the same true of Dinosaur Jr.?
In a way, y’know, better and worse. We’re kinda more consistent now. We play a little bit better. In the past, a lot of crazy things would happen.
What kinds of people have been coming to your shows?
I don’t wear my glasses when I play, but I hear it’s a lot of young people. People our age don’t go out much.
Have you heard any Japanese guitarists?
I have, but I can never remember any names. You know, the quality level’s usually better. It seems like Japanese get more into what they’re doing. They go more over the top with sounds.
People here practice really hard.
Yeah. Not like Arctic Monkeys. It’s impressive how a band in England can get huge and they really can’t even play. Because it’s hard to get that sound, of not being able to quite play. You can only be there at one point in your life, and after you’ve crossed the level to knowing, you can’t get back to that sound of not knowing. (James Hadfield)
- Weirdest moment: The Staremaster contest, where two grown men tried to stare each other out in the presence of a judge with a giant eyeball for a head. Oh, and one of them ate a live scorpion too.
- Most entertaining stage: The Karaoke Sonic stage, where a Kurt Cobain look-alike (stripy jumper, blonde wig and tiny guitar) sang Nirvana’s “Breed” while writhing around on the floor.
- Oddest fashion accessory: A girl seen wearing rain boots in 30 C sunshine.
- Most addictive arena: The Sonic Vegas casino, where hostesses tried (and failed) to teach us how to play mah-jongg.
- Most crashing reality check: “We’re going for the world clapping record. We need more people . . . ” — The Horrors, on realizing that their audience was a tad smaller than their ambitions.
- Scariest quote: “This (song) is about a girl you don’t want to share with the world. You’d rather chop her up and eat her cos she’s sweeter than you.” — Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz.
- Festival hero: Klaxons frontman Jamie Reynolds, who whizzed around the Dance Stage in a wheelchair despite a broken ankle. (Daniel Robson)