As the Green Stage went dark for Sia’s Saturday night performance at this year’s Fuji Rock, which took place from July 26 to 28 in Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, the downpour that had started around noon had already stolen the night.
As more and more fans opted for shelter over “Chandelier,” a slow-moving mass of drenched attendees made their way back to the camp grounds in a scene that looked more disaster movie than music festival. But this is the Fuji experience.
Come rain or shine — let’s face it, there’s likely going to be rain — music fans and sometimes, their families, continue to journey to Niigata for a weekend of music and mud.
It wasn’t long ago that the festival was dogged by rumors that it may be about to wind up. However, attendee numbers hovered around the 125,000 mark from 2016 to 2018, and this year’s count swelled to 130,000, with all tickets selling out before opening day. Clearly people aren’t scared of a downpour or two. By the time the venue officially opened at 9 a.m. on Friday, the place was packed, especially at the main gate where people created a bottleneck to take a moment for selfies and group photos.
In addition to the three headliners — The Chemical Brothers, Sia and The Cure — the festival brought out overseas top 40 acts like singer Anne-Marie, who gave a joyful performance in a twirly pink dress, folk rock band The Lumineers and crooner Jason Mraz.
However, it was Janelle Monae who stood above them all with her powerful performance celebrating female empowerment, black identity and queerness. It was thrilling to see her wear the eye-catching ruffled pants from her “Pynk” music video, as well as a military-style jacket with a sweeping train paired with sparkly silver leggings. Monae’s show took on a strong political stance as she asked the captivated crowd, “Do you know what it means to be a true citizen of the world?” and called for the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump before launching into a triumphant rendition of “Tightrope” without missing a beat.
Although Fuji Rock is a music festival that caters to a mostly Japanese audience, the lineup is noticeably diverse. That doesn’t mean that Japanese acts were underrepresented, though. Those who have lived in Japan during the past 20 years or so would have felt a strong sense of nostalgia. Rock band Ellegarden, which recently reunited after a 10-year hiatus, performed on the Green Stage on Friday, 11 years after its last appearance at Fuji Rock. Alternative rock band Asian Kung-fu Generation got lucky with a momentary break from the unceasing rain on Saturday evening and brought out Ayaka Tatamino from Homecomings as a special guest.
On Sunday, Superfly, now consisting solely of vocalist Shiho Ochi, took to the stage after a nine-year Fuji Rock absence to perform well-loved classics like “Ai o Komete Hanataba O.”
While many attendees flock to the festival because of the big names on its lineup, it’s the newcomers and unexpected additions that make the trek to Niigata worthwhile.
Friday kicked off with hazy, dry weather and the humorously named Red Hot Chilli Pipers on the Green Stage. While some may have been dubious about a novelty band of bagpipers dressed in kilts performing familiar pop and rock hits like Coldplay’s “Fix You,” Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” and even “This Is Me” from the soundtrack to “The Greatest Showman,” their infectiously fun performance had the crowd out of their camping seats and dancing.
Other standouts over the three days included Zoo, hailing from Valencia, Spain, which brought elements of ska, rap and hip-hop that had the early Saturday crowd fist- pumping and dancing at the White Stage, and American artist Gary Clark Jr. giving a soulful performance of “I Got My Eyes on You.” The buzzworthy Khruangbin played a DJ set at the funky Crystal Palace Tent on Saturday night before a bigger Sunday show. Hailing from Houston, the trio’s spacey and groovy act that made skipping out on the middle portion of The Cure totally worth it.
Rapper Vince Staples was a surprising and welcome addition. Although he seemed at times confused by the crowd’s strong enthusiasm despite not fully comprehending his attempts to connect with the audience, Staples gave an intense and confessional performance. Audiovisual project Tycho, which was nominated for a “Best Dance/Electronic Album” Grammy in 2017, slowed things down with ambient melodies and gorgeous vocals from Hannah Cottrell, aka Saint Sinner.
As for this year’s headliners, The Chemical Brothers made a return to Fuji Rock on Friday night, playing a two-hour set on the Green Stage to a techno-loving crowd. The trippy graphics of dancing robots and floating heads, plus the release of giant balloons into the crowd, made for a fun and satisfying close to the first day.
Saturday saw rain, relentless from early afternoon and truly bearing down on festival-goers by the time Sia took to the main stage. Even though teen dancing sensation Maddie Ziegler and a cadre of accompanying dancers did an impressive job tearing up the stage and bringing Sia’s songs to life, the show was decidedly anti-climactic after Martin Garrix’s energetic set, which was complete with pyrotechnics, lasers and solid crowd work.
In contrast, Sia barely moved from her perch on the left side of the stage and kept her face completely obscured with her signature two-tone wig. For all we knew, the singer could have been replaced with a body double. Even though Sia belted out fan favorites such as “Cheap Thrills” and “The Greatest,” it felt more like watching a dance performance than a live music show. By the time she was done (without sticking around for an encore), the crowds were soaked through and some of the booths between the Green Stage and Kids Land were flooded, forcing some, including yours truly, to forego catching Death Cab for Cutie for a long trudge back to our warm futons.
A tip for future Fuji first-timers: Finding a cab after 11 p.m. from the nearest stations, especially in the rain, can be treacherous. After experiencing last year’s infamous typhoon that hit during Kendrick Lamar’s Saturday night set, I came prepared this time with multiple layers of rain gear and my fingers were still shriveled by the end of the night.
The final day of the festival felt less chaotic as the crowds and weather eased up. Despite a slight change to its lineup with bassist Simon Gallup being unexpectedly sidelined and replaced by his son Eden, final headliner The Cure was greeted with loud cheers, particularly when frontman Robert Smith stepped out. Taking a moment with his arms wide open as if to fully take it all in, the goth rock icon launched the first song. Although at its last Fuji Rock performance in 2013, the band kept playing well past its scheduled curfew, this year’s set closed right on the dot with “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Even though Fuji Rock is a music festival, it’s worth mentioning that the event has much more to offer besides catching live performances of familiar and new musical acts. The food stands at Oasis, near the Red Marquee, and the Field of Heaven once again kept stomachs more than satisfied despite ceaseless rain. The pork chops at the Field of Heaven and the katsu (breaded pork) curry at Mori no Haiji Kare near Kids Land were my go-to pick-me-ups after roaming from one stage to another.
The family-friendly fare, such as a mini amusement park and comedy shows over at Kids Land, clearly made parents feel more welcome, giving them a chance to bring along their children for a memorable, albeit messy, weekend.
Those who were up for a longer walk and some fun activities headed over to the Orange Cafe where they could risk cutting their weekend short with a go on the slack lines, or be a little more sensible and join a drum circle. Meanwhile, the vinyl maze had me scratching my head over its giant blow-up head, but I was entertained nonetheless.
And, because everything is about social media now, those who were invested in pleasing their Instagram followers were able to head down the forest trails that led to the White Stage, Field of Heaven and Orange Cafe area where twinkling lights, disco balls and odd sights worked as the perfect backdrop.
Even with three full days, it’s always going to be impossible to do and see everything Fuji Rock has to offer. But girl, it sure is fun to try.
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