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Fuji’s Rookie A Go-Go stage holds an antidote for the same-old rockers

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

The Fuji Rock Festival kicks off tomorrow with its dependable mixture of ageing rockers from abroad, a handful of predictably chosen Japanese acts, and just a smattering of blogged-about buzz bands. This year in particular, the joy I felt upon the demise of Oasis has been replaced with the dread of the hydralike horror of two separate Gallagher-fronted bands as headlining acts on two successive days.

For those punters seeking a festival experience that doesn’t hang off the bloated egos of such up-and-coming dadrockers, though, an alternative would be checking out some new artists on the Rookie A Go-Go stage.

Rookie A Go-Go tends to be something of a lost corner of the massive festival, located outside the main gates, running from 11:30 p.m. till 3:30 a.m., and featuring almost entirely unknown bands. As a number of stages in the main festival arena expand to accommodate the typical music fan’s increasingly fragmented taste, Rookie A Go-Go risks becoming irrelevant.

One promising move that suggests organizers Smash Japan are committed to making the stage a useful stepping stone for new bands, was the decision to treat Rookie A Go-Go as a kind of audition — one of these bands is guaranteed a spot on one of the larger Fuji Rock stages the following year. The decision is based on a first round of votes by fans who see the performances, a second round carried out online, and then the judgment of staff at Smash based on the act’s “track record.” While that may sound a little like organizers are reserving the right to ignore fan votes, I prefer to see it as a check against the distorting effect of aggressive social-media campaigning.

Of course, a rounded decision can also be a dull one. The winners of last year’s audition were Cero, whose whimsical, blandly folk-jazz fusion pop was a conservative choice, albeit one ideally suited to the Field of Heaven where they will play on Sunday morning. That’s not to say that something more abrasive, anarchic, melodic or minimal can’t win itself a place on one of the bigger stages next year though, and there are some interesting prospects among the young hopefuls at this year’s event.

Friday’s Rookie A Go-Go kicks off with cross-dressing, nudist garage-punk longhairs Gezan. Fresh from a sold-out two-man show with similarly hirsute U.K.-based psych-rockers Bo Ningen, they are one of the most immediate and striking acts of the entire festival. If At The Drive-In can muster up half the energy of this quartet of young Osaka wild men, their Sunday night White Stage headlining slot will be spectacular. For Friday night crowds, Gezan’s fierce, rough-edged energy and eccentricity should be a perfect antidote to the plodding tedium of Beady Eye and Ocean Colour Scene.

For those who like a bit of melodic 1960s-influenced guitar music but crave something infused with warmth and intimacy rather than puffed up with Gallagher-esque arrogance and hot air, The Keys should have it in spades for their Friday night performance.

Saturday night’s lineup ranges from Kettles‘ indie-garage rock to hip-hop group Steruss, with the dub/reggae sounds of Tam Tam in between. It’s probably the most mainstream-ready selection of bands.

Kanazawa duo Ningen OK (Friday) and Fukuoka’s MacManaman (Sunday) both offer more challenging thrills. The former work around the dissonant interplay between guitar and drums, incorporating sudden shifts in rhythm that become more frantic as the music builds. The latter focus on the harmonic overlays of bass and twin guitars, galloping out of the traps from the first moment in a technically dazzling burst of warp-speed drone. What both groups share are a passionate, energetic approach to progressive music and hyperactive (quite possibly insane) drummers.

The main thing spectators at the Rookie A Go-Go stage should take away from the acts is a sense of the high degree of professionalism that characterizes much of Japan’s “amateur” music scene. Hopefully, they’ll also get a sense of the scene’s diversity, energy and imagination. These 15 bands were chosen from 1,400 applicants and there are many thousands more acts who didn’t even apply. Rookie A Go-Go is the tiniest scratch on the surface of a vast body of underground music, it’s great that Smash Japan are trying to give some of these a chance, but that will only mean something if festivalgoers give them a chance, too.