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After only four years, it might seem premature to subtitle the Fuji Rock Festival a “summer classic,” but the event’s institutional status was boosted this year by the fact that it was held at the same location as it was the year before. The Naeba Ski Resort was never the organizers’ first choice — as the name implies, it was supposed to be held within spitting distance of Mount Fuji — but politically the Mount Fuji area has proved too difficult for the Glastonbury-like prerogatives that the organizers envision. For better or worse, Naeba seems to be the permanent home.

Front-line frenzy at Fuji Rock

I think it’s for the better. Mount Fuji may be more iconic than Naeba, but Naeba isn’t any less beautiful for it; and since the ski resort is owned by a single entity, namely, the Saison Group, the festival is ensured the kind of year-to-year stability you need if you want to be an institution. But Naeba isn’t better because it’s less susceptible to typhoons. The promoters have been jittery about heavy weather since they canceled the second day of the inaugural festival after it was hit by a storm. So, in a sense, it was good that it rained on the first day this year. The grounds were a mess, but the patrons took it in stride, thus facilitating the organizers’ recovery from their precipitation phobia. If you want to be Glastonbury then you have to deal with mud, which is pretty much what Glastonbury is about (that and disgusting toilets, a tradition that Fuji has wisely avoided).

Now that Smash has stared down that demon, they can move on to other, more malleable variables. Like the sleeping situation. Since overnight camping is integral to the FRF experience, I was happy to see that the campground was moved closer to the action (though I still think festival-goers would prefer level ground).

The main improvement, however, was combining last year’s Levi’s New Stage and the Virgin Dance Tent into one venue called the Red Marquee, which presented indie-flavored bands during the day and dance music at night. By doing so, the organizers used space more effectively (the restaurant area was bigger and more unified).

Security: Between rock and a hard place

Much has been said about the competing festival, Summer Sonic, having more big-name acts. Admittedly, the participation of Fuji’s only certified international stadium-stuffer, Primal Scream, was vital if for no other reason than that it guaranteed a large number of bodies in front of the main stage on the final night. Just as last year I stood on the hill on the first day watching the audience slam to Rage Against the Machine and suddenly realized why rock festivals were good, on the final night I watched the huge mass of humanity boogieing to Primal and felt the weekend had been properly consummated.

Some people thought that Fuji’s 106 artists amounted to overkill, but isn’t that what festivals should be about — more choice than you need? In the end the surplus of acts and, more importantly, the fact that most of the ticket-holders had never heard of many of the artists are what made this year’s FRF sublime. Ozomatli, the legendary Latin-flavored rock and hip-hop collective from L.A., not only made their Japan debut but lots and lots of new friends, delivering three smoking sets over the weekend at various stages and stamping the festival with the same multi-culti certification that the Argentine group Todos Tus Muertos did last year.

Whatever Summer Sonic offered in terms of star power, it was still just a “rock” show. (One Fuji staffer told me that if FRF was Glastonbury, then Sonic was Reading, i.e, a big, sprawling concert rather than a festival).

Of course, too much choice can sometimes be a drag, but that, as they say, is life. Taking the open-minded approach, I decided to forgo those bands I liked but had seen before for artists I’d merely heard about. So I opted to catch the German industrial trio MDFMK (formerly KMFDM — don’t ask) on the White Stage rather than the Foo Fighters on the Green. I watched long enough to see the ballyhooed guitar-playing robot and, figuring I’d had enough of the group’s deathly pretentiousness, eventually made it back to the Green Stage to catch the end of the Chemical Brothers, who weren’t pretentious but certainly duller than I remembered.

Similarly, I missed Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her and Yo La Tengo at the Red Marquee on Saturday in order to see two supposedly cutting-edge Japanese acts. Hokkaido hip-hop duo Tha Blue Herb demonstrated good flow and stimulated the audience’s brain cells, but there wasn’t enough musical variety to sustain my interest. And though the rock-steady formulas of Dry and Heavy were potent, the vocals weren’t as good as I’d been led to believe they were.

But sometimes the opposite happened. Nothing I saw over the weekend made more of an impression than Fantastic Plastic Machine’s DJ set on Friday night, which I boldly decided to check out

rather than the more obviously promising Asian Dub Foundation (who, according to the buzz, did the best set of the festival). As a fanatical record collector, Tomoyuki Tanaka knows what he likes and, more importantly, why he likes it. He moved from the Bay City Rollers to bossa nova to well-worn hard rock smoothly and then jumbled it into startling combinations that made the audience shout with joy. A genius of tension-and-release, he had the Red Marquee dancing happily and with increasing fervor for close to 90 minutes without a break. Solid proof that record geeks — even slightly overweight ones — can be sexy, too.

Kelis

This spirit of fun professionalism became my yardstick for measuring all subsequent shows. Kelis, the only legit soul artist at the festival (and, apart from singer-songwriter Jess Klein, the only female solo act), put on a tight, controlled show. What gave it character was her bold insistence on straying into realms that stone R&B fans might find weird but that festival-minded people could dig. In addition to her own excellent material, she did an incredible four-part harmony version of “Born to be Wild” and finished the set with a spot-on rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” because, as she said, “We like to party now.” Nirvana, party music? I’d completely forgotten.

Vegan terrorist Moby proved the importance of being friendly. “Isn’t this a beautiful place?” he said to the crowd, acknowledging how much better it was listening to his hyperactive and breathtakingly beautiful disco-and-thrash in front of pine trees and mountains than in a stuffy, smoke-filled basement (of which I’m sure he’s played his share). He was love-and-peace personified, not because he bought into some tired festival cliche, but because he’s a nice guy who at that moment was inspired by his surroundings. He immediately put everyone at ease and then just as immediately made them sweat. I can’t think of a better formula for creating happy campers.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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