Lesser lights shine amid Fuji Rock rains

by Mike Sunda

Special To The Japan Times

When U.S. act Washed Out hit the Red Marquee stage on Friday night, that’s when the Fuji Rock Festival 2011 really began to get going.

Coming off a drab performance at May’s Freaks Festival that left many disappointed, singer Ernest Greene was determined to prove that it was just a freak accident, and was boldly wearing the May festival’s T-shirt like a statement of intent. Greene swaggered through the band’s set with a level of confidence unbecoming of his status as chillwave’s poster boy, urging the crowd to “jump, jump!” through disco’d-up versions of “You’ll See It” and “Eyes Be Closed.”

While low expectations may have played a part, Washed Out’s triumph was that of a young band bringing a fresh sound to Fuji and owning the stage.

Until Greene took the stage, the words “washed out” were being used to describe the physical state of the festival grounds at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture. Torrential rain threatened to put a dampener on the entire party. Rumors of a storm front coming in from the Korean Peninsula (one that ultimately left three people dead in Niigata Prefecture) caused spirits to be low heading into the weekend. On top of that, news of electronic musician Rei Harakami’s sudden passing broke Thursday, July 28, on the same date he had played the festival 10 years earlier.

Former Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra member Tatsuyuki Hiyamuta’s new project, Dad Mom God, had the unenviable task of opening the main Green Stage in front of the few visitors who weren’t still trying to anchor their tents. Their lifeless performance compared poorly to his former bandmates’ far more exciting, if predictable, headline slot Saturday.

Japanese garage-rock band 8otto were only marginally better at the Red Marquee, but they provided the first of many “ganbare Nippon” (“let’s go Japan”) rallying cries that were expected in light of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11. One of the most heartfelt instances of support came from Swedish/Japanese singer-songwriter Maia Hirasawa, who dedicated her song “Fragile,” with its poignant refrain “One minute you’re alive, the next you’re not,” to the people of Sendai.

Comparatively inconspicuous, though, was the antinuclear sentiment that many thought would dominate this year’s proceedings. Prior to the festival, Fuji Rock’s chief producer, Masahiro Hidaka, told The Japan Times there would be a concerted effort to raise nuclear awareness and promote clean energy. To that end, the Gypsy Avalon stage, powered by bio-diesel fuel and solar energy, hosted a series of antinuclear-themed talks and performances, with many of the guests also giving speeches between acts on the Green Stage. You couldn’t fault the organizers for their effort, but the call to action never really caught on.

Instead, it was the continued message of support for victims of the quake that was more noticeable. The ubiquitous donation boxes for the relief efforts saw lots of charity from festivalgoers.

While donations were up, sales of food and beer were reportedly down, perhaps owing to the fact that attendance was down by around 10,000 people on previous years. This could have been why main-stage audiences looked sparse, but acts on smaller stages maintained their crowds. It doesn’t come much smaller than the tiny Mokudotei boardwalk stage, where China’s Hanggai played a killer set to a full house of 100 people. Hanggai performed on three stages in two days, but their hectic schedule paid off — by the end of the festival, punters were buzzing about their punk-rock take on traditional Mongolian folk music by the end of the festival. The mulleted singer bantered at length in either Mongolian or some Chinese dialect, but the band’s popular drinking song transcended all language barriers and resulted in plenty of spillage as beer cans were waved about deliriously by the crowd.

Other popular acts on the smaller stages included indie rocker Kaji Hideki joined by Riddim Saunter, performing for their third time at Fuji. The crowd wasn’t aware that it would be Riddim Saunter’s final Fuji appearance, since soon after the festival the band announced they will be splitting up in September. Blind Malian duo Amadou & Mariam drew a small crowd to their slot at the Field of Heaven stage early Friday evening, but played their second set of the night — minus the backing band — to a rapt audience in the intimate Crystal Palace tent.

The same went for Manu Chao. His Green Stage set on Friday got crowds dancing, but when he announced he’d be the special guest at the Crystal Palace later that night, excited fans turned that show into a brand of chaos not seen since Gogol Bordello played there in 2008 — a set that has since gone down in festival lore.

It was these special moments that this year’s headlining acts, for the most part, struggled to reproduce. Coldplay put in a textbook performance featuring all the big hits and a lengthy list of props: fireworks, giant balloons and a shower of butterfly-shaped confetti — all within the first handful of songs. However, the band’s set came off as gimmicky and artificial. Singer Chris Martin also amazingly managed to pick the only 10-minute dry spell of the day to cover “Singing in the Rain.”

“What a glorious feeling, I’m back at Fuji Rock again,” he sang. We get it Chris — genius. Thanks for not covering SMAP again, at least.

Saturday’s headliners, the Faces (with Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall replacing Rod Stewart on vocals), were even less memorable. The Green Stage was also the emptiest it has been in years — by a significant amount. After the set, some in the crowd admitted that they either had no idea Ronnie Wood, Kenney Jones and Glen Matlock were in attendance, or that they simply didn’t care.

The Faces set featured two tributes, “Ooh La La” and “Debris,” but both were dedicated to former bandmate, the late Ronnie Lane, rather than the Amy Winehouse dedications that had been rumored. Tribute or no tribute, watching Wood, no stranger to rehab himself, power confidently through his guitar solo at 64 years old made it hard not to reflect on what Winehouse could have been.

Perhaps it was just because they mostly took place in the dry confines of the roofed Red Marquee, but the night performances seemed to match the revelry of Fuji’s recent past. SBTRKT (pronounced “subtract”) kicked off the dance-music portion of Friday’s proceedings, performing alongside long-time collaborator Sampha, as is the custom for their live sets. The masked London producer’s live drumming combined with Sampha’s soulful vocals to create a performance far more accomplished than the simple DJ set many had been expecting. Following that was a high school reunion of sorts, with Four Tet and Jamie xx, both alumni of the Elliot School in Putney, London, taking to the decks, and both impressing with their less-is-more approach to beat-making.

Highlights from the Red Marquee’s other night shows included Japanese electro-rockers 80Kidz, who had put in a blow-away performance two years ago on the same stage. Their anthemic synth-riffs are perfect festival fodder, and the crowd lapped it up. There were even bouts of crowdsurfing, which were otherwise largely absent from the main stages. In a nod to headliners Yellow Magic Orchestra, their set included a cover of “fourth member” Hideki Matsutake’s track “Clash.” Digitalism and Atari Teenage Riot also proved big hits on the Saturday and Sunday respectively.

In general, electronic acts seemed to have it easier than their rock counterparts this year. After all, even in miserable conditions a four-four beat will get many a Japanese head nodding, and Sunday night’s headliners The Chemical Brothers continued in that vein. Nearly everyone still present at the festival ventured to the Green Stage for their set, which included career-spanning crowd-pleasers such as “Star Guitar,” “Hey Boy Hey Girl” and “Block Rockin’ Beats.” The visual aspect was particularly stunning, with a column of lights encircling the duo, as well as giant green and yellow balloons being released into the crowd while the same balloons also appeared on the video-screens, exploding into showers of paint in sync with the beat. Thankfully, for the tens of thousands in the audience who had spent most of the weekend soaking wet, the real balloons remained intact.

Prior to that, the Green Stage had finally filled out for the first time in three days as fans flooded in to see legendary Japanese electronic three-piece Yellow Magic Orchestra. At first it was a pleasure to hear their pioneering electronica in the flesh, but as the nostalgia began to wear off it was hard to avoid noticing how dated their songs sounded. There’s no denying the influence they’ve had on modern musicians — many of the bands playing at the festival, both Japanese and foreign, cited YMO as their one must-see performance of the weekend — but, rather than a defining moment of Fuji Rock history, their set felt more like a passing of the torch to younger acts.