Finding fun in Summer Sonic’s odd lineup

by Philip Brasor

In May, Japanese Web site Netallica reported that advance tickets for two of the big rock festivals, Fuji and Summer Sonic, were not moving. Both feature foreign artists, and Netallica implied that the latter added the grand old man of Japanese rock, Eikichi Yazawa, and best-selling J-pop hip-hop group Funky Monkey Babys in a desperate bid to boost sales.

The problem for Summer Sonic, which was held last weekend in Tokyo and Osaka, is that this year it took place on the same weekend as Rock in Japan, the country’s biggest summer festival attendance-wise. There wasn’t much the organizers could do about it due to venue and artist availability, but whatever factors contributed to the final lineup, it was definitely the oddest roster the festival has ever offered.

Summer Sonic started out as a showcase for foreign rock acts, and over the years has become a Japan debut opportunity for topical indie bands and, increasingly, world-class hip-hop and R&B artists. This year’s headliners represented the twin poles of urban music: Jay-Z, the most successful rapper in the world, and Stevie Wonder, the most popular extant link to the golden age of soul.

The one genre that seemed underrepresented compared with previous years was punk, which almost lost one delegate when Deryck Whibley, the leader of Sum 41, was hospitalized Friday night after a bar fight in Osaka. Against doctor’s orders, he played anyway. The show must go on, even for punks.

Attendance figures notwithstanding, it was easy to get the impression there were fewer punters this year at the Tokyo end (officially, 99,000 for the weekend; Osaka boasted 59,000). Two years ago, security closed off the Beach Stage when it was commandeered by fans of the J-pop reggae collective ET-King, but this year they played the same stage and there was plenty of wiggle room. Yazawa attracted his fans, but there weren’t enough to fill Marine Stadium, and then he gave them only 25 minutes. “Who’s here seeing me for the first time?” he yelled, showing his own strategic hand.

Half the concerts are held on three stages inside the Makuhari Messe convention center, and there were none of the usual bottlenecks between shows. Maybe it was the nice weather. A journalist from Taiwan told me how strange he felt attending a summer festival in a dark, subterranean, air-conditioned space. Then again, considering how hot it was outside, some people preferred that.

The one instance of overextension was Wonder. The stadium was stuffed to the rafters for his Sunday night set, with exits blocked and aisles occupied. He came on 20 minutes late and played only 70, meaning 20 minutes shorter than scheduled. He wasted “My Cherie Amour” by passing it off to his son, Mumtaz, who was here to promote his own album and whose microphone didn’t work. The audience was happy to do the job for him. It was less a concert than a meeting of a mutual appreciation society. “I Love Tokyo,” Wonder shouted every 15 seconds.

The crowd for Jay-Z’s show Saturday night was sparser. In Japan, he’s better known as Beyonce’s husband, and though the folks in front of the stage knew his songs, he had difficulty connecting, owing to language but also to an attitude that was generous but parochial. He made little effort to localize his show, introducing “Hard Knock Life” with a list of deceased American rappers and going on about how significant it is for “our generation” that a black man is now president of the United States. His live skills are as impressive as advertised, but he might as well have been from Mars, especially compared with Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan, who delivered a solid set the next morning highlighted by a duet with Japanese R&B star Ai on “Wavin’ Flag.” K’naan has been to Japan four times in the last six months. He knows how to connect.

In that regard, Korean boy band BigBang’s set provided some of the best hip-hop of the weekend, which may sound blasphemous given that Nas and A Tribe Called Quest were also in the house. BigBang were another late addition, and to anyone who dismisses boy bands as a matter of course they were a revelation. Light years more accomplished than any counterpart in Japan, where K-pop acts are seen as a serious industry threat, BigBang do everything in fluent English and Japanese, so the audience had no trouble relating.

Another ringer was Taylor Swift, the only bona fide country artist to ever play Summer Sonic, although calling her “country” misses the point. Her crossover appeal is based on youth, innocence and big hooky songs about boys. Wearing a purple minidress and long boots, she skipped around the stage and executed the trite choreography requisite for this kind of pop show. Though a six-year veteran at 20, she still seems awkward, which may be why the audience responded so warmly. Like Wonder, her show floated on a cloud of audience affection; unlike Wonder, that love feels new, and Swift’s emotional reaction was irresistible.

Her antithesis was Hole’s Courtney Love, who’s twice her age and infinitely more cynical, even if the swearing that flowed from the Mountain Stage on Sunday seemed purposely designed to shock (“We’re gonna play some new songs and you’re gonna like ‘em, f-ckers”). Sometimes that sort of thing counts for more than chops, and she had a visceral relationship with the audience that her onetime boyfriend, Billy Corgan, who played the night before with Smashing Pumpkins, didn’t with his even if Corgan got an encore and Love didn’t.

There was a contingent of dedicated headbangers who camped out at the Mountain Stage all weekend, but the real show was across the convention center at the Sonic Stage, where an impressive lineup of indie buzz bands surprised those who welcome surprise. The shock on Saturday was Two Door Cinema Club, a Northern Ireland group whose early afternoon show was packed and stoked. On Sunday, two new U.S. groups, Surfer Blood and The Drums, both featuring lead singers who tuck in their button-down shirts and affect a theatrical singing style, turned the masses into impromptu bouncing surfaces.

Darwin Deez, a bedroom pop artist whose attention to detail is almost autistic, did a great job of shaking booties on the Dance Stage, but the owner of that space was Die Antwoord, a South African hip-hop trio whose stark but funny depiction of life makes Jay-Z sound like a sociology professor. “I’m hard and ugly,” lead MC Ninja said, thrusting his hips while pint-size partner Yo-Landi Vi$$er swiveled hers and piped “I know what you want” as porn played on the back screen.

But the best show at a festival isn’t always the best experience, which for me was Tahiti 80 at the Beach Stage Saturday. The sun had just set and the sky was pink. Last year, the French band’s set on the same stage was washed out by a freak thunderstorm, so they were grateful for another chance. Their lite dance rock wasn’t Die Antwoord, but it fit the time and place perfectly. It’s not something the Summer Sonic folks can control, but it’s something they should keep in mind.

Check out The Japan Times Web site at jtimes.jp/ss for more pictures from the performances at Summer Sonic.