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Going to the country for a bit of Fuji Rock

Rain and sun, and artists on fire at Japan's famous music fest

by Philip Brasor

Whether or not you believe Kiyoshiro Imawano, who died in May, was Japan’s King of Rock, he was the Mayor of Fuji Rock, having appeared almost every year until he was diagnosed with cancer in 2006.

The Saturday night tribute started with footage of the singer-songwriter riding his beloved bicycle on the big screens, accompanied by a recording of Fuji’s official theme song, Kiyoshiro’s “Inake e Iko” (“Let’s Go to the Country”), and ended with everyone singing his most famous tune, “Ameagari no Yozora ni,” which was doubly appropriate since it took place “under the night sky after the rain.” Nevertheless, there wasn’t a dry eye in attendance.

Listening to guest singers such as UA and the Ulfuls’ Tortoise Matsumoto tackle his soul material, it was obvious how deeply influenced Kiyoshiro was by American music of the 1960s and ’70s, and in particular southern R&B.

Steve Cropper, the guitarist-producer-songwriter responsible for some of the greatest soul hits ever to come out of Memphis, had been persuaded to hang around Japan after his tour with the Blues Brothers Band the week before. With the Stax Records house band, the MGs, and the Memphis Horns, Cropper once backed Kiyoshiro on a Japan tour. And since Booker T, the leader-organist of the MGs, was playing a solo set at the festival, that meant two of the group’s surviving members were in the house. Cropper called Kiyoshiro “a great man and a great entertainer,” and sang “one of Kiyoshiro’s favorite songs,” Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” Booker T followed with a version of Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” However, later that night when Booker T played at the Orange Court, Cropper didn’t appear, even to play on “Green Onions.”

Despite the recession, the attendance at this year’s Fuji Rock Festival was about the same as it was last year, and people clearly had a good time even with the rain pouring down on Friday.

Dedicated Fujirockers have become used to precipitation, though some artists haven’t. During Oasis’s Friday night set, Noel Gallagher complained about the weather as if it was Japan’s fault, and he said it rather colorfully.

But the rain did cause problems. All Night Fuji, the midnight-to-dawn rave that takes place at the distant Orange Court, was canceled. A swollen river damaged the bridge connecting the main area to the far-flung stages, and crews were brought in for repairs in the middle of the night.

The rain probably justified all the purchases of camping chairs to the people who brought them. There has always been a subset of Fujirockers who utilize these collapsible devices, but they usually park them on the upper reaches of the hill stretching in front of the Green Stage.

This year, the chairs were everywhere, even in the Red Marquee, which is as close as Fuji gets to a punk dive. It became a chore to push to the front of the stage and have to navigate around perched punters. At the crowded Kinniku Shojotai show at the White Stage on Saturday, security staff had to go through the crowd getting people out of chairs, since there wasn’t enough room. I couldn’t help but wonder: Are we that old already?

Hip-hop tends to be under-represented at Fuji, not because the festival is averse to rap, but because it is so inclusive of all types of music that hip-hop receives less attention at Fuji than it does in the world at large. So Public Enemy’s headlining appearance at the White Stage on Saturday night was considered one of the weekend’s must-sees.

Not surprisingly, Flava Flav, the clock-wearing clown to front man Chuck D’s hectoring firebrand, didn’t make it thanks to the same “visa issues” that prevented him from joining the band at Summer Sonic in 2005. But that also didn’t prevent the Summer Sonic appearance from being the greatest hip-hop concert I’ve ever seen. The White Stage show wasn’t as momentous.

Maybe it was the length. Public Enemy was scheduled to play two hours, and opted to perform their 1988 album, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” in its entirety. They augmented it with hits from other albums, an unknown rapper from Public Enemy’s record label, a gratuitous “tribute” to Michael Jackson (basically, DJ Lord spinning “Billie Jean”), and lots of shout-outs to Public Enemy’s Web sites. The last five minutes allotted for the show was given over to these shout-outs, while somebody hawked Public Enemy-related wares from a duffel bag near the stage.