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Running around the many stages

by James Hadfield

If you want to get a sense of the sprawling possibilities at Fuji Rock, just look at Rafven’s schedule. The former street band from Gothenburg, Sweden, managed to play no less than nine times during the festival, bringing their exuberant brand of gypsy-style revelry to a string of different stages both in and outside the main arena. They were still going strong at 3 a.m. on the final night, which made all the big-name headliners seem a bit wimpy in comparison.

Fuji hasn’t added a large-scale stage to its site since 2003, and its expansion since then has been more a case of filling in all the available gaps.

Stages have sprung up in forest groves, food courts and at the end of a 5-km gondola ride.

This year’s new addition was the Cafe de Paris, a cabaret lounge complete with a Moulin Rouge windmill outside. The dance-floor was reduced to a mud pit almost immediately, but this didn’t detract from the fun to be had inside — assuming that you didn’t mind trekking to the farthest corner of the site for the pleasure. With so much going on, some of the festival’s highlights came in the most unexpected places. Who, for instance, could have expected a band of traditional Mongolian musicians to rock as heavily as Black Sabbath? Altan Urag managed exactly that, helped by a formidable female drummer who added extra wallop to their dirgelike riffs. It was enough to drive the audience into a frenzy when they played at the late-night live-house Crystal Palace in the Palace of Wonder. Esne Beltza worked similar magic with their blend of South American cumbia and Basque folk music, which went down like a sort of aural catnip.

When there’s so much going on, of course, there are always some casualties. The Neville Brothers’ “living legend” status wasn’t enough to lure the punters away from Oasis, and the audience for their Friday headlining slot on the White Stage was embarrassingly thin. Bright Eyes, who could depend on getting a capacity crowd at most Western festivals, struggled to fill even a third of the Red Marquee. Everyone else was missing out: The band’s set was one of the most understated and affecting of the whole weekend, and also boasted its most ecstatically received cornet solo. All right, probably its only cornet solo.

This was a good year for catching bands you shouldv’e seen a few decades ago. Recently reformed ’70s protopunk act Zunou Keisatsu showed that you can still rock convincingly when you’re pushing 60 and one of your core members is a conga player. Unlike most of his Western peers, too, frontman Haruo “Panda” Nakamura can still squeeze into those tight trousers.

Bad Brains and Melvins would also seem to be bands whose glory days are long behind them, but both delivered extremely assured sets. Melvins’ music has always sounded like it crawled straight out of a swamp, which makes it fitting that key members Buzz Osbourne and Dale Crover are looking increasingly like they came from a similar place themselves. Their afternoon slot was sludgier than the oceans of mud surrounding the stage, and all the better for it. Bad Brains have aged more gracefully, going from hardcore polemicists to elegant Rastas. Their set vacillated between the two extremes, lingering perhaps a little too long in dub reggae territory for the revved-up Saturday evening crowd. But if their stage presence was muted, their sound retained much of its punch, with old warhorses like “Banned in D.C.” inspiring some pretty hectic moshing.

Peaches incited similar mayhem when she appeared at the Red Marquee, just as an older rebel rouser, Patti Smith, was finishing up over on the Green Stage. It’s becoming ever harder to dismiss Merrill Nisker as a novelty act: Her live show may be pure vaudeville, but it’s so confidently executed that she kicks the haters into touch. Each song came complete with its own party trick, though the most effective gimmick was the simplest: A flashing bulb positioned right between her thighs. Major Lazer could have done with a few such flourishes themselves. With no stage show to speak of besides a pair of Japanese dancers in a permanent state of wardrobe malfunction, the duo perhaps weren’t the best choice for a midafternoon slot on the White Stage. They did, at least, take full advantage of the hefty sound system, pushing the bass into the red as they cranked out a selection of dancehall and dubstep.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s appearance was their lone date for the summer, coming in the midst of a supposed hiatus. It provided a rebuff to anyone who thought the band’s days were numbered: After a hesitant start, they seemed to gather momentum as their audience swelled, building to a downright euphoric climax. If anything, they trumped Animal Collective’s hotly anticipated show later in the evening. The trio’s live setup simply couldn’t match the punch of their most recent album, “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” and some of that record’s highlights felt a mite undernourished in the flesh. It was the more tripped-out, hypnotic sections of the set that fared best, but as a whole it fell short of the triumph that many had been predicting.