“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by MDMA…”
All the festivals I have ever been to ran like modern versions of Ginsberg’s “Howl”- there were boys with dinner-plate eyes rocking back and forth in darkened corners of tents, girls wailing that they’d dropped their baggies in the mudfield outside the mobile toilets, and the campsite was like the Somme, littered with trench-foot victims and burning piles of trash. Showers? Not unless you count the spray of warm beer and amyl nitrates flying overhead. They were, in a word, messy.
Now, considering any substance harder than Suntory or cigarettes is pretty underground in Japan, I wasn’t expecting to find so many revelers comatose in front of the main stage on Friday morning, looking like they’d all overdosed on the Kool-Aid. But then I remember that the Japanese national sport is sleeping- not Sumo, as everyone assumes- and that this was an opportunity for all the card-carrying members of Narcoleptics Anonymous to recover from their punishing working hours. In contrast to the behavior I’d observed at other festivals, the aim seems not to lose one’s memory/dignity/housekeys/lunch, but rather to survive the inevitable mud-bath with panache and dry socks. Hence the thousands of camp chairs. And the fashion for head-to-toe waterproofs. In fact, the whole festival looks like the North Face A/W 2010 catalogue, as if was actually being held on its mountainous namesake, as initially intended.
I make my way through the sleeping bodies to catch Local Natives on the White Stage, eager to hear one of my favorite albums of last year-Gorilla Mansion-live. Having caused murmurs in the press following their “big break” at Austin’s SXSW, they unfortunately don’t seem to have made waves in Japan just yet- although a mention of the country in the nostalgic single “Airplanes” raises a cheer. The record’s quiet/loud orchestral dynamic translates to their live show extremely well, while the soaring three part harmonies are beautifully led by Freddie Mercury-lookalike Taylor Rice. Their sound is modish enough to have been described in terms of their contemporaries- a “cheerier Fleet Foxes”, or “a West Coast Grizzly Bear”- but their raw honesty and genuine energy punch through to make them sound quite unique.
Next up are Broken Bells, the unlikely collaboration between The Shins’ James Mercer and producer Danger Mouse, which produced some addictive pop gems last year. Mercer’s unmistakable reverb’ed vocals stay intact, while Danger Mouse provides diverse backdrops that veer from neo-psychedelia to the ethereal, spliced with a little old fashioned indie. “October” is the stand-out, with its violin intro, squelchy guitar and spooky chorus of “Does one want to get more used to/The mall and the misery, the dead mouths it costs to be alive?”
The weather gods must have known that the XX were up next–a band best listened to in damp weather, under the covers, suffering some form of heartache–for the rainstorm suddenly worsens, thundering down on the Red Marquee as dozens huddle by the edge. Yet even the uninitiated are pulled in with the hypnotic “Intro,” which is all ‘80s revival synth and jangly guitars. Vocalist Romy Madley Croft stays rooted to the spot for the whole of their atmospheric and minimalist performance. Having lost one band member last year, I thought they might sound sparse- yet the sound emitted from just the keyboard and guitar is enough of a foil to Croft, who seeps emotion with every syllable. The somber mood lifts for a jazzy “Basic Space” before they close with a subdued, but quietly powerful “Infinity”.
With the rain having receded, it’s time for some dancing. I head over to the most un-google-able band in the world, !!!, who sound as close to an aural equivalent of exclamation marks as one can get. Nic Offer struts around in his tiny shorts like a spaniel with ADHD, licking glow sticks, jumping off the stage to get intimate with the audience, and pulling dance moves camper than a row of tents. Shannon Funchness holds fort at the front of the stage shaking her tambourine like a woman possessed, as Offer bounces around her like a pinball. The other band members are infected with the same energy, thrashing around to their distinctive mélange of disco/punk/funk/jazz to the delight of the revved up crowd. The banter with the crowd is hilarious, music impossible not to move to, and the visual spectacle the highlight of the day’s acts. Ending with a cover of Saturday headliners Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain,” they bowed out, leaving everyone hungry to get their hands on the upcoming album, aptly titled Strange weather, isn’t it?.
Maybe it was the rum, but staring at the pertest ass this side of Havana, I suddenly realize that… Click To Tweet
Fujirock – Traversing Musical Landscapes
Saturday’s line-up was simply a good reason for sleeping in late, taking a leisurely three hours to queue for a shower, and having a gin-induced nap in the most distant field. The festival is rather irritatingly arranged linearly, meaning that it takes a good half an hour to traverse even when the human traffic is good, and prevents much spontaneous flitting between the stages. It does mean, however, that the Green Stage’s sound system, possibly the loudest I have ever heard, is inaudible by the time you reach the boardwalk. Glinting with disco balls and swaying decorations, the passage way provides a pleasant respite- until it gets bottle-necked in the evening, meaning I miss MGMT and get shunted around like cattle in the thick crowd.
Wet weather in the afternoon brings about the day’s highpoint in the Cabaeret Fiesta tent, where I get wasted on mojitos and fall in Sapphic love with a salsa dancer named Carolina with the Willie Martinez and Mambo Loco band. Maybe it was the rum, but staring at the pertest ass this side of Havana, I suddenly realize that when I grow up I want to have a day job where I can wear nothing but feathery plumage, satin heels, and a sassy smile.
I come crashing back down to earth when I venture back to the Green stage, where John Fogerty, a relic from Creedance Clearwater, is blasting out his dad rock dirge. Never have I more wanted to unhear something- or felt more envious of all the oblivious camp-chair dozers. Fortunately, a few slices of the superlative pizza from the Niseko Pizza van brings my mood up again.
Another curious choice for the main stage was “special guest” Chris Cunningham, whose spastically dark electronica and macabre visuals gave everyone the heebie jeebies, prompting a mass exodus, bar a hardcore few raving it up. As a fan of his Aphex Twin-esque brand of nightmarish noise, I kind of relish the shuddering, apocalyptic beats as they boom around the valley. The night ends in the Vegas and Milk bar with a hefty amount of gin and the barmaid distracting everyone from the human cannonball by going all Coyote Ugly with a blond wig and PVC catsuit.
On Sunday everything perks up. I wake up to bright sunlight and manage to sneak into a friend’s room in the Prince Hotel for a luxuriously hot shower. On the way out I discover the best souvenir I have ever seen- Niigata Bust Pudding. Unhooking the cardboard bra strap reveals two pert breast-shape custard puddings, complete with nipples and sauce to splatter- I mean pour- on top. I still can’t bring myself to eat it.
I kick off with Yeasayer in the Red Marquee, followed by Vampire Weekend; two bands who both simmer their eclectic influences into their own distinctive sounds. Even those who gave a lukewarm reception to Yeasayer’s second album, Odd Blood, went as crazy for the single “ONE” as the crowd do here. Singer Chris Keating over-emotes just a tad- scrunching up his face and beating a tightly gripped fist in the air- but between songs, he’s supremely bouncy and enthusiastic, telling us all how excited he is to be in Japan for the first time, “Four minutes until my vacation starts, people!” The holiday vibes continue with Vampire Weekend, whose afrobeat-indie brings out some magical California feeling, just as the sun comes out.
I’m glad it dries the ground enough for a little dancing, as Foals provide possibly the most electric set of the weekend. There isn’t any banter with the audience, with the band breathlessly jumping from one song to the other, seemingly bent on driving themselves to exhaustion. Incorporating a few songs from their first album, including the high-octane “Balloons”, which builds from a wiry beat up to a furious crescendo, and the fidgety, spiky “Cassius”, the crowd is the most animated I’ve seen all weekend. Spent from running at full gallop, the fivesome then slow the pace for a few of the more expansive and emotional numbers from the second album, Total Life Forever. Yannis Philippakis’ heartbreaking falsetto on the standout track, “Spanish Sahara”, sends shivers down my spine.
Matching them for intensity is a more unlikely rock star: James Murphy. Tubby, stubbly and kind of shy, it is easier to imagine him as a shoeless drunk instead of fronting LCD Soundsystem, one of the greatest dance/punk band of the noughties, but then he’s always been a kind of outsider within the genre. Despite making his name with hits that scorn the hubris of the hipsters and poseurs that populate the “scene,” one wonders whether the fans actually understand that the joke is on some of them. Here, the language barrier means most certainly don’t, but he still manages to manipulate the audience with aplomb. While his backing band seem calm, even bored at first, he turns it up to 11 from the get-go, upping the energy generated by Foals by screeching into a microphone that he clutches with the desperation of a drowning man. Soon the whole band is swept up in his buzz, running through each of their funky, beat-driven hits as Murphy throws himself around the stage with masochistic glee. “I can change! I can change!” he screams to the audience, who look like they’d like him to stay exactly as he is. Darkness falls as an impressive light show begins, and they close with the explosive and epic “Yeah”.
Wrapped up in LCD, I forego the first half of much-hyped Atoms of Peace, even though the second half suggests Thom Yorke’s sartorially challenged performance seemed to be worth catching. Having assembled a supergroup to reinvent his solo album The Eraser, he seems to have made a break with his Radiohead stage persona (sullen, static) to take on that of a crazed, skinny P.E. teacher. Dressed in a head band, vest and white shorts, he dances like a bullied twelve year old alone in their bedroom. I had no idea how the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea might fit in with Yorke’s surreal, epileptic vocals and muffled beats, but somehow he does.
While my friends made for the bar, I stuck it out to see Scissor Sisters. The first show to offer more eye-candy than aural pleasure, their uber-camp theatrics were received well by the audience, who completely fail to catch the innuendo flying around. It’s easy to dismiss the Sisters as fluffy pantomime, yet they are far more than their stage schtick. Their hits- “Tits on the Radio”, “Laura”- are pure manna for the disco fan, and their gutsy cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”, complete with Beegees falsetto and taut guitars, is a masterpiece. Best of all is the chemistry that ripples between Ana Mantronic and Jake Spears, who bounds around looking like a kinky Nureyev in his chestless leather man-tard.
As the torrential rain threatens to dampen their proverbial fireworks, I retreat to the Vegas and Milk bar once again to drown myself in a different liquid (gin). It’s quiet, with all the day trippers having left and a Sunday mood creeping in like the mist outside. The North Face raincoats aren’t so box-fresh any more, and there’s probably a few sandal-wearers still trying to extricate their feet from the mud soup- but the most civilized festival in the world has left the best minds of my generation intact, and content.