Mix earth with rain and thousands of people, and you get a big muddy mess. But, rain or shine (and it did a little), the key ingredient is music. Philip Brasor, Simon Bartz and Mark Thompson indulged in FRF ’03.
July 24, 9:45 p.m.
Danko Jones, a blues-rock singer from Toronto built like a bullet and with a stage persona to match, is blowing away a near-capacity crowd in the Red Marquee, the only venue hosting bands on this, the night before Fuji Rock Festival officially begins. An estimated 15,000 people, or roughly half the maximum who could buy tickets for a given day, are here in Naeba; which is both a record and a clear indication of what the festival has become. Seventy percent of total ticket sales are for three-day tickets, and Saturday completely sells out at 37,000.
Hyper and super-focused, Jones has a lock on the crowd’s attention and he connects in an elemental way. The audience reacts as if they’ve struck oil. But maybe it’s the excitement of just being here at Fuji Rock that fires them up so much. (P.B.)
July 25, 11 a.m.
You expect thunder to roll and lightning to strike when rock ‘n’ roll outlaws Thee Michelle Gun Elephant kick off the action at the Green Stage Friday morning. The theme of “The Godfather” is playing as the black-suited TMGE march on stage. As soon as they begin hammering us with their slick but vicious garage-punk, the rain stops only to return immediately after they play their last song. The rain stays with us for the rest of the day.
Next morning it’s deja vu. Dark gray clouds look eager to spill their contents on us as black-leather-clad Guitar Wolf stalk onto the White Stage as the theme music of yakuza flick “Jingi Naki Tatakai” blasts through the PA. Japan’s other gods of garage-punk promptly deliver a typically chaotic mess of a set. They jump off speaker stacks, throw cans of beer into the crowd and spit toward the security men down front, and then, halfway through a feedback-infested cover of “Summertime Blues,” it’s as if the god of rock ‘n’ roll has smiled down on them. They don’t simply stop the rain but cause the clouds to part, giving us a first glimpse of blue sky for two days. (S.B.)
July 25, 8 p.m.
Macy Gray is playing the Green Stage, and it’s pissing down. There’s no denying the greatness of the performance. The playing is tight, the selection of songs perfect, and Gray is as charismatic as legend has it — and weird as hell. Her huge Afro is twice as big as her head; and who on earth allowed her to go on in that tacky knit pantsuit? But when you’re soaked to the bone you tend to be preoccupied, and your enjoyment only rises so far. Gray obviously understands this. “I’m so grateful that you sexy people would stand in the rain and listen to us,” she says, “and just as grateful that I don’t have to be standing there with you.” (P.B.)
July 26, 5:45 p.m.
Coldplay come across as a poor substitute for Radiohead, who rumor has it were very close to being booked for Fuji when they decided to play Summer Sonic instead. Chris Martin’s voice is similar to Thom Yorke’s, and when Coldplay get revved up they sound like pre-“OK Computer” Radiohead. On the Green Stage, however, they’re lighter than non-fat milk.
Martin, looking every bit the superstar he’s become by dint of hard work and tabloid hysteria, sings his songs of amorphous feeling with eyes closed, occasionally traipsing across the stage as if he is trying out for a school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Then, suddenly, he takes off his guitar and literally flings it over the edge of the stage. The song continues, but you can see everyone on stage freeze in shock. Thom Yorke never did that. (P.B.)
July 26, 9:30 p.m.
Bjork probably orchestrated it all. A fine mist falls on a Green Stage field, filled to the gills. From the top of the hill looking down, it looks like a giant convention of the Pana Wave cult. Thousands of worshippers, dressed in white hooded raincoats, face their deity: a small Icelander dressed like a sea fairy, warbling up and down the scales and intentionally dancing off the beat. Backed by a string ensemble and minimalist electronica, she reinterprets her songs with true Bjorkian elegance. For the finale, tall flames ignite onstage and a fireworks display illuminates the heavens. The worshippers let out a collective “oooh” and leave content, their faith restored. (M.T.)
July 26, 10:10 p.m.
Rain is a good boxer. Especially if it’s heavyweight with a solid punch. After a while it beats you into the corner and you lose on points and stagger off toward your tent, only to face an upstream battle through a Dead Sea of dense curry sauce. Want a cold beer? No thanks, I feel like a recently deceased fish.
So with little shelter and a lackluster appetite for booze, the random drunken parties are rarely kicking off. Today might be sold-out, but it’s a bummer — until Iggy Pop takes the stage.
Here’s a man armed with a never-say-die attitude (majoring in substance abuse at an early age and now pushing 60). His enthusiasm as he bounces around the White Stage is infectious — he’s like a teenage delinquent fresh out of jail for a crime he didn’t commit against a girl he loved. And his greatest hits selection of tunes is unbeatable. We get “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “Loose,” “The Passenger,” “Raw Power” etc. Iggy also invites fans onstage and gets molested. “That’s enough,” he squeals and the most enthusiastic ones have to be tossed back into the steaming crowd. It’s kick-ass music and our asses are kicked into life. The mosh pit spreads and the R-word is the last thing on anybody’s mind. (S.B.)
July 27, 11:15 a.m.
For the second day in a row, a Korean band starts the day’s festivities at the Red Marquee. Yesterday, it was the sophisticated punk-pop of GUMX, and today it’s the high-calorie grunge of the Sugardonuts, whose lead singer, a short fellow in a short-sleeve, button-down shirt and horn rims, speaks decent Japanese he’s carefully memorized. The effort to communicate is appreciated by the small audience, who make a point of encouraging the band in response. The result is a potent morning set, like a nice big cup of espresso and a sticky sweet cruller. (P.B.)
July 27, 2:30 p.m.
It’s not surprising that Vincent Gallo isn’t allowing photographers to shoot his show, but it is strange that he’s on the Green Stage and not at the new Orange Court, where acoustic and jazz-oriented acts are playing. Gallo’s music alternates between quiet cocktail ballads about being lonely, and slightly jarring instrumentals that nevertheless rarely get out of hand. It’s not so much that his music is small, but that he plays it as if he were afraid of waking the neighbors, whom he’s probably never met. When he sings “Laura,” he’s almost drowned out by the roar of Rovo playing a kilometer away at the White Stage. “Fantastic, thank you,” he says, and the audience cheers, believing he’s acknowledging them. He’s actually talking to a stage hand. (P.B.)
July 27, app. 3:30 p.m.
What defines the perfect festival moment for you? Losing your Fuji Rock virginity behind a bush, communing with a tree after chewing too many mushrooms, or sharing an elevator with Bjork at the nearby Prince Hotel (it’s where all the stars stay, but if you wanna room for next year’s Fuji book now).
For me it’s when — courtesy of a kind new friend — I stretch out on her deck chair on the hill in front of the Green Stage, my arm resting on a cooler packed with booze. My new pal must have got here at dawn to grab such a great spot.
The clouds have turned from a dark gray to brilliant white and gently unruffle to reveal an electric blue sky, hanging like pure Hollywood behind a bunch of devastating mountains. I take a deep breath. It’s not all about music, is it?
I sit back smoking and downing a bottle of fine nihonshu with my pal as we reminisce about previous Fuji Rock highs. Just as I’m hitting paradise there’s a screechy whine: “This is a song about bringing someone back from death. I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Argh! It’s Evanescence and they sound like a cod-gothic Garbage! My perfect Fuji moment is ruined, and this bunch of former Christian rockers remind me that the path between heaven and hell is a narrow one. (S.B.)
July 27, 7 p.m-11 p.m.
Thwarted by crowds and weather-induced fatigue, I’ve been unable to see all the bands I wanted to, but tonight I’m determined to pack in as many in possible.
As Elvis Costello ends a rousing set of favorites, supported by his old mates, the Attractions, I rush off in the direction of the faraway Orange Court to catch the Shibusa Shirazu Orchestra. My trek is blessed by a newly built wooden (read mudless) boardwalk that starts at the entrance of the White Stage area, snakes its way behind the Field of Heaven and ends at the Court. Tonight, the mutated cosmic dub of The Orb on the White and Steve Kimock’s hypnotic space-rock at Heaven provide the perfect trippy soundtrack for my journey through the woods. Passing glowing pink flamingos and mirror balls, I exit the rabbit hole just in time to see a troupe of butoh dancers kick off the S.S. Orchestra’s show with a pagan celebration of insanity.
I eventually rush back to Green to catch Massive Attack — who couldn’t be further from Shirazu’s earthy bacchanalia and wild improvisations. Before a screen of technological signage and political warnings, the slick Massive show leaves nothing to chance. They build their chilled yet intense vibe to near perfection, and I could easily call it a night, but there’s still the lure of Mogwai’s orchestral postrock, back over on the White Stage . . . (M.T.)
July 27, 11:45 p.m.
The Counterfeit Beatles are playing yet another impromptu set, this one on a makeshift stage just off the World Food Court. Originally, the covers band was not even on the roster, but they have so far played the pre-festival bash at the Red Marquee, filled in for the Murderdolls on the Green Stage, and squeezed themselves onto the tiny Gypsy Avalon stage.
The band’s special suit is to become the Fab Four, complete with appropriate costumes and characterizations, at any given time in The Beatles’ decade-long career, which means at the Red Marquee they played songs from the first Beatlemania phase (from “She Loves You” to “A Hard Day’s Night”) and on the Green Stage they did the post-Sgt. Peppers thing.
A big crowd is now enjoying a set from a roomier time capsule, which seems to encompass everything from the Cavern Club to “Revolver.” The audience is ecstatic, and I finally forget that the Paul manque looks too much like George and the George manque looks too much like my cousin Steve when he was in sixth grade. (P.B.)
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