NAEBA, NIIGATA PREF. – On the Thursday night before the Fuji Rock Festival begins in earnest, part of the festival site is open to everyone free of charge. Originally, this pre-festival party, complete with traditional Bon-odori dancing and fireworks, was a means of thanking the surrounding community for putting up with the racket, and for years it was attended mainly by the Fuji faithful. More recently, it has become a fourth day of the festival. This year it was so packed, revelers could barely move around.
An increasing number of festival-goers are from Asia, where better living standards have created a boom in the concert and music festival businesses. Some camp out, but most opt for accommodation off-site, bringing their families.
Fuji Rock rosters have always represented a wide spectrum of countries, but the big names are usually British or American. This year’s blowout was notable for the variety of its international acts. Though still a Japanese event attended and performed mainly by Japanese people, the international focus has become sharper on both sides of the footlights.
The overseas act that played the prefest party this year was those killers in kilts, Red Hot Chilli Pipers, a band from Scotland that arranges covers of classic rock songs for bagpipes and a rhythm section. They also opened the main Green Stage on Friday morning to get the real party started.
The Green Stage opener on Sunday was Hanggai, a large ensemble from Inner Mongolia via Beijing that plays rollicking versions of traditional songs on traditional instruments, but with the addition of a seven-member horn section. Similarly, one of the funkiest shows of the weekend was by The Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band, in which three traditional Thai instruments are supported by conventional drums and bass. The players don’t change their native sound, they just adjust it for broader tastes.
On the other side of this coin was Vaudou Game, an Afro-funk group with a leader from Benin that reconfigures James Brown’s inventions for ritualistic purposes — funk twice removed, so to speak. The Houston power trio Khruangbin, which headlined a packed Field of Heaven on Sunday night, plays mellow instrumental rock based on Southeast Asian melodies, all while dressed in sci-fi attire and matching hippy wigs.
Anglophone fare from the U.S. and U.K. still gets most of the attention, but this year Australian artists constituted a kind of mini-invasion, spearheaded by Sia’s headlining Green Stage performance during one of the worst storms ever to hit the festival and varying in tone and tempo from Courtney Barnett’s slacker guitar rock to Stella Donnelly’s utterly personal and infectiously hummable indie pop. The boys were ably represented by King Gizzard & the Wizard Lizard, which wisely limited its wildly eclectic repertoire to heavy metal for its Japan debut.
But the most interesting subset of artists was a clutch of second-generation Asian-American women who are transforming world pop with intimate music: Yaeji’s diaristic musings set to soothing house electronica; Jay Som’s bedroom concoctions of classic California dream pop; Mitski’s moody, performative take on romantic dysfunction. These women grew up in multicultural circumstances that shaped their outlooks and which they transform into art that is helping to redefine what an international rock festival should be about.
Fuji Rock may take place in rural, tradition-minded Japan, but it’s of the world and the moment.
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IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5