Few bands can draw a massive round of applause for 15 minutes of ambient music, but that’s just what Radiohead received at the start of its Sunday night headlining set at this year’s Tokyo leg of Summer Sonic.
The crowd at the main Marine Stage in QVC Marine Field was losing it well before the British band played a single note, though, whooping every time the stage lights dimmed.
Summer Sonic estimates a majority of the 65,000 Sunday attendees watched the Radiohead set, a victory for festival founder Naoki Shimizu who told The Japan Times earlier this month that this year’s event — held concurrently in Tokyo and Osaka on Aug. 20 and 21 — purposely recruited more rock acts after last year’s EDM-and-pop-anchored installment failed to sell out. Mission accomplished: The ballpark was so full for Radiohead that fans had to sit in the aisles.
And Radiohead delivered. Although the set started somewhat sluggishly with a stretch of songs from this year’s “A Moon Shaped Pool” — an album of introspective tracks better suited for headphones than stadium speakers — the five-piece soon launched into a performance touching on material from across its decades-long career, including the twinkling melancholy of “No Surprises” and the stomping “The National Anthem.” The crowd went wild for every familiar opening — then again, they erupted when lead singer Thom Yorke made caveman-like grunts between songs — and went especially bonkers as the opening notes of rarely performed breakthrough “Creep” began to play.
It was a triumphant conclusion to the two-day festival, but it underlined a problem for many festivals: Where is the next generation of headline acts? In the same way Red Hot Chili Peppers guided Fuji Rock to its largest crowds since (cough) Radiohead played there in 2012, anticipation for a single legacy act propped up the event as a whole. Great for short term business, but not so hot for the long haul. Shimizu expressed similar concerns to The Japan Times two weeks ago, that only older groups can get fans out to festivals.
Summer Sonic featured many established names, but with mixed results. British electronic duo Underworld headlined Saturday (which saw 55,000 in attendance) with a set of booming dance tunes presented like a rock set. It was designed for listeners to get lost in, explaining why the stage’s smoke machines worked overtime. Yet there was plenty of space both in the main pit and in the upper deck by the time Karl Hyde and Rick Smith concluded with megahit “Born Slippy.” Their presence, though, allowed the festival to make shirts featuring the Union Jack, adorned with the groaner “Keep Calm and Summer Sonic.”
Veteran rockers proved more successful. Domestic outfit The Yellow Monkey attracted a far bigger crowd with its relatively mellow late Sunday afternoon set, while America’s Weezer delighted the day before with an uptempo performance that featured a cameo from lead singer Rivers Cuomo’s daughter on keyboards for two songs. Inside the Makuhari Messe convention center, drama kids Panic! At The Disco shined with a high-energy show that saw vocalist Brendon Urie going shirtless and pulling off some impressive backflips. Similarly, the Hostess Club All-Nighter event late Saturday was stocked with familiar rock outfits, highlighted by the fuzzed-out riffing of Dinosaur Jr. and singer-songwriter John Grant.
One of Summer Sonic’s biggest hits came from a Japanese supergroup, the electro-pop unit Metafive. Featuring Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Yukihiro Takahashi, Towa Tei, Keigo Oyamada (aka Cornelius), Yoshinori Sunahara, Leo Imai and Tomohiko Gondo, its Sunday afternoon set at the Sonic Stage resulted in the rare instance where staff closed off the entire area.
Bankable festival-ready rock certainly had a heavy presence, but Summer Sonic still paid heed to the all-styles-served mantra that has defined it since its inception. The pounding sounds of EDM were pushed to the Beach Stage Saturday night, save for Swedish DJ Alesso’s Marine Stage set ahead of Underworld. Top 40 pop, meanwhile, flourished on the Mountain Stage, particularly Sunday evening when Mark Ronson and Flo Rida closed out the night. Black Eyed Peas singer and solo performer Fergie achieved the highest pop spot in the stadium Saturday afternoon.
“I want to thank SMAP×SMAP, and Koda Kumi, who is somewhere here, I think,” she said. Later, social media revealed she did, indeed, find the J-pop singer for a photo.
Despite a set that recalled how big Fergie was in the mid-to-late-2000s, the crowd wasn’t as huge. Pop, after all, is all about who is hot now, and perhaps her newest track “M.I.L.F.$” hasn’t translated well in Japan.
Other popsters fared better. Danish performer MØ attracted one of the largest — and youngest — crowds at the Mountain Stage on Sunday. She delivered her set with a forceful voice and movements to match, including running into the crowd for closer “Lean On.” Equally popular on Saturday night was Pentatonix, an a cappella quartet performing covers of popular songs.
Still, it’s tough imagining either one of them earning a spot at the top of a future festival — we may see a Michael Jackson hologram up there before seeing an a cappella group that traffics in medleys. However, the many Japanese acts that dotted the outer edges of the festival’s time table put on shows that looked like long-term attempts at creating new headliners.
Three domestic acts appeared on the Marine Stage each day — a higher number than last year’s one a day. Genre-blender Suiyoubi No Campanella ended up surfing the crowd inside a giant plastic ball, while Enon Kawatani smiled like the scandal that defined his first half of this year never happened during his band Gesu No Kiwami Otome’s. Packed Saturday set. Gen Hoshino’s quirky pop attracted an even larger crowd, while Osaka was blessed with the Babymetal spectacle.
Most intriguing was the band going on right before Radiohead: Sakanaction. A Sapporo-born five-piece that melds rock with electronic elements, their penultimate set benefitted from plenty of folks who showed up early for the British powerhouse, but the bulk of fans present bopped along excitedly for anthemic thumpers such as “Music” and “Aoi.” Sakanaction was a fitting addition to main stage, with traces of Radiohead’s heady atmospherics and Underworld’s electronic edge — it was huge music that you could also cry in your room to. What made Sakanaction feel like a fit was how it embraced all the elements that make for an act capable of ending a festival — lead singer Ichiro Yamaguchi got the crowd clapping and waving, and midway through the band brought out a mini-orchestra of taiko drummers, kimono-clad dancers and more for an extended jam that felt like a Tokyo 2020 tryout. On a weekend defined by older acts, it was a moment where the future still seemed pretty bright.