Music

Western acts take note: Joy and enthusiasm are the key to winning over Summer Sonic crowds

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

British rocker Noel Gallagher has developed a reputation in recent years for delivering biting, hilarious one-liners, both in interviews and at concerts. In front of the crowd as the Saturday night headliner for Tokyo’s leg of Summer Sonic, however, the former Oasis brain trust was mostly quiet.

Over the course of 90 minutes, he and his High Flying Birds hunkered down on recent solo material with a few Oasis hits mixed in (“Wonderwall,” “Don’t Look Back In Anger”). “Thanks so much,” he said late in the show, “maybe we’ll come back next summer.” He ended with The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” while the audience trickled toward the exits.

The scene reflected Summer Sonic 2018 as a whole, held concurrently in Tokyo (well, Chiba) and Osaka on Aug. 18 and 19. The festival opted for fairly reliable crowd-pleasers at the top of the bill in the form of Gallagher and American alt-rocker Beck, acts long popular in Japan and both of whom saw recent success headlining Fuji Rock in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The rest of the lineup managed a balancing act, avoiding a push to one single genre as had happened in recent years.

A nice variety of fans came out to Zozo Marine Stadium and the Makuhari Messe convention center as a result, but the venue also felt surprisingly spacious — a feeling many noted online. Attendance statistics shared by organizer Creativeman showed around 40,000 customers on Saturday and Sunday each in Tokyo, a 10,000- and 5,000-person drop from last year, respectively.

The problems in being idle: Noel Gallagher headlines the Tokyo leg of Summer Sonic on Saturday. The British rocker was suprisingly nonchalant in a set that saw him close with a Beatles cover.
The problems in being idle: Noel Gallagher headlines the Tokyo leg of Summer Sonic on Saturday. The British rocker was suprisingly nonchalant in a set that saw him close with a Beatles cover. | © SUMMER SONIC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The space was clearest in the ballpark, especially for the headliners. Beck ran through 1990s hits and springier cuts from last year’s “Colors,” and brought out rising Japanese artist Daoko to guest on “Up All Night.” It was serviceable albeit predictable, which may be why the stadium looked somewhat empty with the sides and back of the field boasting plenty of room, and no shortage of chairs in the upper deck.

Gallagher did better attendance-wise, but as things dragged on, the crowd gradually shrank. Maybe all the posters promoting an upcoming show by his brother Liam got in his head (overheard from a fan: “They need Liam back … Noel can’t carry a show by himself.” Ouch!)

The sub-headliners fared just as well. EDM star Marshmello delivered this year’s blast of dance music to the Marine Stage on Saturday night, fidgeting between pounding originals and nostalgic favorites (“Mr. Brightside” by The Killers, “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey). Better was Chance The Rapper on Sunday evening. The Chicago MC’s Tokyo debut found him zipping across the stage, delivering a set that was half party-starter and half Sunday service. Chance’s energy and emotion (“It’s too tunrt up!”) made for one of Summer Sonic’s more joyful shows.

Chicago style: Chance the Rapper provides one of the more joyous performances at Summer Sonic 2018.
Chicago style: Chance the Rapper provides one of the more joyous performances at Summer Sonic 2018. | © SUMMER SONIC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

On-stage enthusiasm, or a lack of, was what made some of the Western acts really stand out. Metal outfit Mastodon brought mosh-generating power to the Mountain Stage on Saturday, while Jess Glynne provided quite the counterpoint to Beck’s straightforward performance outside the stadium with a romping run of disco pop.

England’s Friendly Fires played their first show in years Saturday night at the Sonic Stage, and shot out the gate with a three-song run that found singer Ed Macfarlane dashing into the crowd and jumping all around. He drained himself after that, but still delivered, albeit at a slower pace. The members of Paramore paced themselves better Sunday night on the same spot. “Are you ready to dance? Are you ready to sing?” vocalist Hayley Williams asked. “Are you ready … to cry?”

That question should have been asked over at the Mountain Stage, where Canadian rock group Nickelback stood court over the event’s weirdest offering. Lead singer Chad Kroeger commented on the crowd’s English and poked fun at a stage hand before declaring “I think this next song is pretty funny because I sing ‘You look so much cuter with something in your mouth.'”

Far more memorable was Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, delivering an emotional set on the Marine Stage featuring a lot of fans holding up signs honoring former member Chester Bennington, who died last year. He also donned a Pikachu hat and, in Osaka, appeared on stage with Japanese band One OK Rock.

Beats international: Marshmello delivered a slew of original tracks during his set as well as some old favorites such as
Beats international: Marshmello delivered a slew of original tracks during his set as well as some old favorites such as ‘Mr. Brightside’ by The Killers. | © SUMMER SONIC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Overall, it felt like Western bands had an off year at Summer Sonic. On the flip side, Asian acts generated hyped-up (and really international) crowds that pointed toward good things for the continent. Most took to the Billboard Live Stage outside the stadium, where laid-back K-pop act Zion T and the fired-up Chinese rappers Higher Brothers were the highlights. Best of all — and most viral — was Korean belter Lee Hi.

The real lesson to take from Summer Sonic 2018 was that Japanese acts run the show. Daoko’s career likely got a nice kick from the Beck cameo, but her own afternoon Sunday set on the Rainbow Stage was nothing to sneeze at. She drew a large crowd eager to see her sing her hit, “Uchiage Hanabi.” Same goes for nervy rockers Frederic and the harder-tinged Spyair. A day after appearing on TV show “Music Station,” singer-songwriter Aimyon generated one of the festival’s few bottlenecks at the Beach Stage.

Established artists did even better. One OK Rock only played Osaka but generated a huge crowd and social media buzz. Tsuyoshi Domoto of pop duo Kinki Kids brought his funk side project Endrecheri to the Mountain Stage on Sunday, delivering a passable take on the style (he repeated the phrase “Let’s funk it up” plenty, just in case you forgot what he was up to).

Best of all, though, was dance-pop unit m-flo — a trio again after members Taku Takahashi and Verbal brought back founding member Lisa for a set that was big on early 2000s nostalgia and lots of positivity (besides the group’s biggest singles, the trio covered Daft Punk’s “One More Time”). Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Summer Sonic, with plans to hold it for three days. Organizers better find more acts like m-flo that will bring the same feeling of joy to the stage if they want to see those crowd numbers get back up.

Full of energy: Friendly Fires vocalist Ed Macfarlane dashed around stage and jumped into the crowd during his band
Full of energy: Friendly Fires vocalist Ed Macfarlane dashed around stage and jumped into the crowd during his band’s Summer Sonic set. | © SUMMER SONIC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED