“This is Fuji Rock No. 20,” said Beck Hansen, lounging against the drum kit at the end of his hit-laden Saturday night set at this year’s Fuji Rock Festival. “Twenty years goes in the blink of an eye, so I think we need to just take a moment here to appreciate … take this in.”
Fuji Rock’s founder, veteran promoter Masahiro Hidaka, had told The Japan Times a few weeks earlier that he didn’t want to make a big deal about the festival reaching its 20th anniversary, but it was all anybody else wanted to talk about this year. Beck was one of numerous artists to acknowledge the significance of the occasion during their sets. Fran Healy, of Scottish rockers Travis, went for a triple whammy when he announced that it was his birthday — and the band’s 20th anniversary year — too.
While the inaugural Fuji Rock was wiped out by a typhoon, this year’s edition enjoyed three days of near-perfect weather, interrupted only by a brief shower on Sunday evening. (Fittingly, it was heavy metal idol group Babymetal, the most divisive act on the bill, who brought the rain.) Organizers posted combined attendance figures of 125,000, making it the most successful year since Radiohead headlined in 2012.
Torrential downpours and seas of mud were once such an inescapable part of the Fuji Rock experience, it’s odd to think that four of the past five years have taken place under pristine skies. If anything, it was too dry. When the moshpit sent plumes of dust into the air during Bo Ningen’s riotous performance on Sunday afternoon, it was the kind of scene you’d expect from America’s Coachella, rather than the verdant mountain valley of Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, the festival’s home since 1999.
In keeping with the anniversary theme, two of this year’s headliners — Beck and the Red Hot Chili Peppers — had been on the bill at the first event, held at Yamanashi’s Tenjinyama Ski Resort in 1997. Only one of them had actually played, though: The Chili Peppers performed a truncated, rain-soaked set on the first night, before tempestuous weather forced organizers to call the whole thing off.
Beck, scheduled to appear on day two, had to wait until the following year, when Fuji Rock temporarily (and confusingly) relocated to central Tokyo.
If the ensuing decades have passed “in the blink of an eye” for the musician, now 46, that might explain why he barely seemed to have aged since the ’90s. The same couldn’t be said of the Chili Peppers: While it was heartening to see that vocalist Anthony Kiedis had bounced back from his health scare earlier in the year, their Sunday night set was the sound of a band struggling to recapture the vigor of their youth. Hey, that’s aging for you.
“Everyone’s so old,” complained a Japanese friend and regular Fuji Rock attendee as he surveyed the crowd, apparently forgetting that he was now in his 40s himself. The average age of the Fuji Rock audience is creeping steadily higher — offset, admittedly, by increasing numbers of children — and there’s no denying that the festival’s wild years are mostly behind it now. Although there were a few scenes of vigorous moshing and crowd surfing over the weekend, the overall mood was civil, bordering on genteel.
Each day, the area in front of the main Green Stage turned into a shantytown of camping chairs, with some people barely shifting from their seats until it was time for bed. The Fuji Rock crowd has become so sedentary that, were they to broadcast the festival live on TV, I suspect a good chunk of the audience would opt to watch it from home instead. After all, the beer would be cheaper and you wouldn’t have to spend half an hour queuing for the toilets then.
Perhaps the most stoic bunch this year was the gaggle of fans (mostly male, many of them middle-aged) who staked out front-row spots at the White Stage on Sunday, braving hours of dust, heat and the intermittent crush of sweaty bodies as they waited for Babymetal. One can only hope that nobody told Robert Glasper Experiment, who played on the same stage immediately beforehand, that the enormous crowd that had amassed by then wasn’t comprised entirely of newly converted jazz-fusion fans.
Babymetal was a controversial booking for Fuji Rock, which has hitherto avoided anything with the faintest whiff of idol pop, and I’m not convinced that the gamble really paid off. If their appearance was a big deal for the festival itself, the group, recently returned from its latest jaunt in the U.S., seemed to treat it like just another tour date. Given that they’re due to appear at all of the other “Big Four” festivals in Japan this summer — Rock in Japan, Rising Sun and the Osaka edition of Summer Sonic — that’s understandable. It was fun, sure, but surprisingly forgettable.
For an example of genuinely audacious programming, you need only have looked at Friday’s Green Stage lineup. The festival has never had an opening main-stage performance as memorable, not to mention downright experimental, as the slow-blooming psychedelic incantation that Boredoms delivered, using industrial percussion, homemade instruments and speaker cones filled with ashtrays and bent forks.
Later in the day, James Blake’s melancholic electronic balladry and Sigur Ros’ stately postrock had seemed like counterintuitive choices for prime time Friday night entertainment, but somehow everything fell into place. Both acts benefited from playing to audiences sufficiently respectful not to talk through the quiet sections, of which there were many. Too bad the mountain wildlife wasn’t so well behaved, as Blake discovered when a large bug flew into him during one of the most hushed moments of his set.
Each year, Fuji Rock finds a new band to fall in love with, and in 2016 it was Con Brio. The San Francisco funksters played three times over the weekend, and within the opening minutes of their first set, at the Thursday night pre-party, it was clear they were going to sweep the festival off its collective feet. Combining a stew of familiar influences — James Brown, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson — with some exuberantly sweaty showmanship, Con Brio was this year’s most straight-up entertaining act.
If I’d only watched the first two songs of Kohh’s set, I would probably have proclaimed it the fiercest. The generously tattooed Tokyo MC opened with a spittle-flecked onslaught that could have cowed even noise-rap pugilists Death Grips into submission, but as soon as he paused to politely thank the audience and switched on the Auto-Tune, the spell was broken.
There were no such problems with Kamasi Washington, whose closing set on the Field of Heaven stage was a sustained 90-minute head-rush of cosmic funk and spiritual jazz, delivered by a group of musicians so accomplished they left me grasping for superlatives. It was the only performance that clashed with the Chili Peppers, and that band’s bassist, Flea, couldn’t resist asking the crowd at the Green Stage if they’d managed to catch any of it. He probably would’ve liked to have been watching it himself: It was the highlight of the entire festival.