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At first glance, the biggest thing happening in Makuhari last weekend was the sale at the local outlet mall. No banners. No bullhorns. No hype. Just a silent, eerie cityscape of hotels and empty family restaurants. In short, there was nothing to indicate that Summer Sonic, Japan’s second-biggest music extravaganza, was taking off, except for the small clusters of festival-goers navigating a maze of overpasses and pavement.

Marilyn Manson

Taking in the view outside Stage One at Chiba Marine Stadium, it didn’t seem as if they had found it. Swarms of security personnel (easily outnumbering the crowd 20-to-one) and a rigid ticketing system that divided the crowd into separate areas of the arena made it more like Narita airport’s immigration section than a rock festival.

The scene at Stage Two, at Makuhari Messe, was equally enervating. Organizers had attempted to make the space more inviting with cafe seating and food stalls, but it still couldn’t cover up the aircraft-hanger ambience. Away from the festival hall, the corridors were dark and empty, leeching energy like a black hole.

Beck

Granted, Summer Sonic never really claimed to be a rock festival anyway, only a long rock concert. And though the location sucked and the crowd control bordered on the obsessive, most of the bands, often through sheer force of will, broke through the inertia and rocked.

At the half-empty stadium on Saturday afternoon (bizarrely, fans were barred from sitting in some of the choicest tier seats), The Living End fought the grayness of both the venue and the drizzle with volleys of clean, mean Who-inspired punk rock. By the end of their set, their acoustic bass player’s fingers nearly bleeding, the band had transformed the crowd on the stadium floor into an undulating mass of moshing bodies.

The groups on Stage Two on Saturday afternoon also rose to the challenge. Russell Simins, away from the Blues Explosion and out of the glare of Jon Spencer, proved to be an equally energetic frontman for his eponymously named side project.

The Living End (top) and Cibo Matto

Sounding like a cross between the drug-razzled blues of Royal Trux and the 1970s guitar-rock of Bachman Turner Overdrive (with a touch of Penelope Houston courtesy of Simins’ ex-model, wannabe rock-star girlfriend Samantha), the group would have easily been at home in the stadium. One wishes they had exchanged places with pals Cibo Matto, who seemed overwhelmed there.

Japanese bands were few at Summer Sonic, unlike at Fuji Rock, where they are often the highlight. As one of the only ones there, Love Psychedelico played to a rapturous crowd. After a sloppy start, they settled into a jam-driven, Dylanesque style with a raw quality sadly absent from their recordings.

On tunes like “Your Song,” singer Kumi sounded like a young Alanis Morrissette. Given the ease and naturalness of her English, with a producer better able to maintain the band’s unfinished edges, Love Psychedelico’s reported goal of being signed overseas doesn’t seem far-fetched.

Jet Black Crayon, skateboard impresario Tommy Guerrero’s musical venture with DJ Gadget, was a chill-out interlude between the boisterous blues inflections of Russell Simins and Love Psychedelico. The group has been compared to Tortoise, both for its unorthodox instrumentation (two basses, a drummer and a DJ ) and its spare, improvised songs. There is a grittier, more esoteric edge than Tortoise, however, courtesy of a low end that made the internal organs shake and Gadget’s textured mix of bird songs and urban noise. Later that day, Air would hit a similarly chilled note with a set of diaphanous jams.

Improvisation also gave Mercury Rev a loose, free quality in one of the best sets of the weekend on Sunday night. Previewing songs from their upcoming album, the group descended into delicious, dizzy psychedelica fueled by no less than three keyboard players and lead singer Jonathan Donohue’s mad, inspired guitar solos.

If the spirit of improvisation reigned at Stage Two, then glam rock was the musical underpinning for the stadium’s headlining acts.

Beck, Saturday’s headliner, and Marilyn Manson, Sunday’s, are at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, yet both share a musical debt to, and a penchant for, image manipulation courtesy of David Bowie (and in Manson’s case, Alice Cooper).

Beck acknowledged this upfront with a cover of “Diamond Dogs” and stage moves copped from Bowie and early-’70s Mick Jagger.

Though Beck put on a strong, tight show, there was a strong whiff of calculation. He is the ultimate postmodern rock star in his tendency to pick and choose between genres and poses. Beck has metamorphosed from a hip-hop slacker to a James Brown-tinged sex machine, but in moments of pause in his set, he still looked like an intellectual geek trying on different looks for size.

If Beck was playful, even charming, though ultimately lightweight, then Marilyn Manson was dead serious.

Behind the creepy glamour and rock cliches, Manson, as his autobiography, interviews and lyrics attest, wishes to be a social commentator. He is the spectacle of a soul delving into its deepest, nastiest recesses. This too, of course, is a standard trope of rock, but with Manson writhing on the stage as his group turned the Eurythmics’ techno lullaby “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” into a psychodrama (with the emphasis on psycho), it has been completely internalized. His grotesqueries seemed horribly sincere.

Much of Manson’s posturing, however, was lost on the Japanese crowd. His bishop’s miter and protofascist fashion were nothing more outrageous than that seen in Harajuku any given Sunday afternoon.

But if they didn’t get the finer points of the performance, they totally jammed on the music. In a collusion of artist and audience, with Manson cavorting in the front rows, kids dancing in the aisles and even the upper tiers in motion, Summer Sonic finally transcended being merely an all-day rock concert.

Unfortunately these moments were few and far between. Kudos to Creativeman for trying to bring the festival experience to a locale that doesn’t require several hours’ train journey and a large outlay of cash. But the festival vibe is all about spontaneity and atmosphere.

This, despite the best efforts of the performing acts, was what Summer Sonic lacked.

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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