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Fujirock Festival – Rebel Without A Raincoat

Fujirock Festival – Rebel Without A Raincoat

I prepped for FujiRock 2013 as I do any journey lasting a few days: I woke up early and hustled. My preparations involved organizing for inclement weather, as the weekend forecast for Naeba and its environs was rain, soft rain, hard rain, thunder-and-lightning rain, and finally, some more rain. I would have to get used to being wet. So I took five minutes to youtube the famous deluge scene from Woodstock. The split screen of naked hippies mud-sliding and an avid drum circle prompted me to to watch Santana and his band of crackerjack musicians blowing our minds with “Soul Sacrifice.” Shouldn’t have done that. I have enough generational envy as is without being reminded of it the day before submitting my rhythm to some institutionally average contemporaries.

Fujirock Festival – Rebel Without A Raincoat

But let’s face it: judging by the festival lineup I’m not the only one boostering for the past. Headlining Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights respectively were Nine Inch Nails, Björk, and The Cure, who were all much more relevant a long time ago (including Björk despite recent mainstream success). Yo La Tengo, My Bloody Valentine, The Sea and the Cake, Karl Hyde (of Underworld), Jurassic 5, Suzanne Vega, Aimee Mann, and Cat Power were also around for those old enough to remember being among the first listeners on our block to cry, “Huzzah, what a sound!” I wager many of us with an emotional investment in the festival are on a nostalgia high, and can you blame us with contemporary meh like Vampire Weekend, Mumford & Sons, and The XX, to say nothing of some earplugs-are-a-plus unmentionables such as Skrillex and its numerous derivatives of doggerel?

A festival the length and breadth of FujiRock is like an aural smorgasbord on the scale of the Sunday Brunch at the Four Seasons Hotel. The food is various indeed, but so overpriced you can’t help feel a bit disappointed after gorging yourself silly on as many dishes you can fit down your gullet. That being the case, no two experiences are alike. With dozens of acts scattered on different stages along a wide swath of colonized nature, you have to make some hard choices (Sparks vs. My Bloody Valentine, for example), though for me at least, I felt fine enough choosing the Burlesque Bar, where friends congregated and mojitos were plentiful.

Have you ever tried to boogie down in hiking boots? It's not very cool, but neither is grooving in wet socks. Click To Tweet

Tame Impala at Fujirock 2013

Tame Impala at Fujirock 2013

The first highly anticipated act, My Bloody Valentine, was received by a consensus of disappointment. “Not loud enough,” was the most consistent charge; when you’re famous for a Wall of Sound, your band’s acoustics will be missing a key structural element playing in the Great Outdoors. As if the collective shrug touched a divine nerve, the skies erupted at the end of the set, punishing those who’d lingered to the end.

Luckily, the young band I was most excited to see, Tame Impala, was playing in the Red Marquee, a covered stage area best known for all-night parties of DJs and their beatmaking bupkis (it ain’t FujiHouse you lollipoppers, it’s FujiRock– get your own rainy day soggy-bottom festival, suckers). Tame Impala have all the makings of rock superstardom– their sound leaps from the psychedelic cliff of the Beatles’ Revolver album (most specifically “Tomorrow Never Knows”). They’ve all the prerequisite vibes of a gloriously hedonistic career: good looks, headbanging hair, a psychedelic light show, and an authentically dope rock and roll sound.

But I had the same problem with Tame Impala that I had with My Bloody Valentine– in all those sonic waves the vocals were impossible to make out, the lyrics lost. I also realized that as talented as these lads were, I didn’t know a single player’s name. This seems endemic in the iPod generation– names, song titles, lyrics, a gist of details has lost its relevance. Within mp3 culture, depersonalization has become the norm. Or are we regressing as listeners so that lyrics– the poetry of language– is too much of a bother? Shall we assign blame to the DJ and his technophilic agenda?

This I pondered a bit in the Burlesque Bar during Trent Reznor’s performance. I heard the thunder and lightning show made for a dramatic set, though I suppose one would have to find some justification for standing out in the pouring rain for NIN’s somewhat celebrated pompousness. I missed out, safely ensconced in the Burlesque Bar where this writer endeavored his after hours intoxication and tried to dance when the DJ put on Blue Monday. Have you ever tried to boogie down in hiking boots? It’s not very cool, but neither is grooving in wet socks.

For those camping at the festival, finding equilibrium is just as important as having your mind blown by some ace guitar licks. The human body being a sensitive machine, one finds himself balancing heat against cold, alertness against rest, solitude against the crowd, quiet against bombast. The weather is so capricious: during Yo La Tengo’s set it must have changed from rain to sun a half dozen times in 45 minutes. You keep your raincoat next to the sunscreen in your daybag for convenient access. It can be a battle maintaining enthusiasm with all that rain, mud, and crowd. Some rest, a quiet beer, and good conversation can rejuvenate the overly sated audiophile.

Preserving some tranquility for myself, I skipped most of Saturday’s daytime performances, save for Aimee Mann (who still radiates indie-cool as a fiftysomething and whose songs from the soundtrack to Magnolia, “Wise Up” and “Save Me,” remain the only redeeming qualities of that most abominable film). Saturday afternoon was deluged with shitty rain, only tapering off in the evening. I missed Karl Hyde’s set because of relocating my tent to more level ground.

I was just in time to catch the second half of Canadian singer-songwriter, Daniel Lanois, who was charming and smart, a throwback for whom lyrics matter. His was a trio and the set was stripped down and straight, feelings wrought from life into art, creating an aura of intimacy, like you shared a bottle of bourbon with the band. It was my first time hearing him, and a pleasure to fall under a performer’s spell.

It’s somewhat treacherous to travel from Daniel Lanois to Björk (bypassing Kendrick Lamar: (Me) “Dick, don’t kill my vibe”). Though I’ve always respected Björk as a performance artist, I’ve never loved her music. As Rob, my companion most of the festival, put it, though he might not listen to her records he couldn’t imagine falling in love with a girl who didn’t. Anyway, for all I could glean on the Green Stage Björk was just a blue-looking freak-figure prancing and singing with a chorus of theaterical pixie chicks. I couldn’t make out how weird the costumes were– instead of Björk and her frolicking elves on the video screens, we suffered a visual montage of uninspired animation. Definitely something was off, as if Björk had overestimated the pretensions of her audience. After just two songs from her new album I was ready to move on. I really don’t get Björk, which feels like being the guy at the Four Seasons buffet who can’t get a handle on the chef’s piece de resistance. The patrons are gaga over its delectable piquancy but all I want is the apple being ignored on a fruit platter in the far corner of the dining hall. That apple is Garth Hudson.

Fujirock Festival – Rebel Without A Raincoat

Fairies in the Wild

“Garth who?” was most people’s reactions when we told them whom we were seeing instead of Björk, to which query our most convenient answer was Bob Dylan’s organist way back. But of course for those who love late sixties folk, he was an integral member of the North American group, The Band. Dressed in black and a boater hat, his long white beard the kind familiar with nineteenth century daguerrotypes, Hudson was easily the oldest performer at FujiRock at 75 years old. You might not know his name, but you know the music he helped create, including such seminal singalongs as “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” Sitting on a swivel chair amid a grand piano, electric organ, and keyboards, he remains a virtuoso instrumentalist. Along with a sax player/bassist with an uncanny pitch perfect grasp of the deceased Levon Helm’s and Rich Danko’s bittersweet wailing, Garth’s wife, Sister Maud, sings the old standbys. Wearing sunglasses and a cap, pushed onto the stage in a wheelchair, she beat time with a cane, and nobody could figure out why she had a MacBook Pro propped on her chair (for the lyrics? Live-tweeting? Pictures of loved ones?) This was folk in the folkiest sense of the word, a Kodak moment for benevolent globalization, an American surrounded by Japanese fans singing along to the band, “Take a load off fanny/ Take a load for free/ And put the weight/ Put the weight back on me.” Turns out R and I are not the only ones who prefer apples.

Sunday’s highlight came early for me with Yo La Tengo. They played mostly from their new album, Fade. Their performance was all too short and consummately beautiful. A scheduling SNAFU on the itinerary consequenced with us catching the tail end of the delightful New Orleans outfit, The Hot 8 Brass Band. Everyone was talking about the last chance to see Wilko Johnson, who was dying of cancer, but he seemed to put on a spirited performance of blues rock if you go for that sort of thing. Following some mid-afternoon recuperation, Toro y Moi put on a lively demonstration of chillwave, though to me at least, I found it wanting, regretting that I’d overlooked the set by “that Ethiopian guy” (Mulatu Astatke).

I am not an economist, an event planner, or a sadist, so perhaps I'm not the best expert on this, but it seems to me if a musical festival I organized had a bad reputation for rain, mud, and discomfort, I would consider either a… Click To Tweet

A Showy Climax during Björk's set at Fujirock 2013

A Showy Climax during Björk’s set at Fujirock 2013

Because Cat Power is wearying and Vampire Weekend a paradigm of contemporary banality, R and I rested in the tent, charging our batteries for The Cure. That was a good thing, because though they’ve been active for 35 years, you’d never guess they’re slowing down after a three-hour set. Robert Smith might be an older, heavier version of his younger incarnation, but the beautiful freak still has terrific vocal power and his energy never wavered. We were up near the stage, surrounded by Cure fanatics arguing over favorite albums and Robert Smith hairstyle epochs. Unfortunately, the crowd became most enthusiastic for the appallingly schmaltzy “Friday I’m In Love,” which was about the time I thought I needed to check out of whimsical nostalgia and check in with a burger. You know what they say about too much of a good thing.

At 6am, Monday morning, I was awoken by a bullhorn reminding me and fellow campers that we had to leave by 10am. Not wishing to be stuck in a bottleneck traffic crush in line for the free shuttlebus to Echigo-Yuzawa and the train home, I got up and moved. Packing your tent in the pouring rain on three hours sleep is a lousy way to end a weekend. I am not an economist, an event planner, or a sadist, so perhaps I’m not the best expert on this, but it seems to me if a musical festival I organized had a bad reputation for rain, mud, and discomfort, I would consider either a different venue or a weekend known for historically favorable meteorology. It certainly seems to me locating FujiRock between Japan’s two largest population centers– the Kanto and Kansai regions– would make attendance more convenient for thousands of fans. Also, booking the second biggest music festival– Summer Sonic– within two weeks of FujiRock fails to take account of concert fatigue. Would Japanese organizers not profit both festivals by having them bookend the summer, especially FujiRock if it were scheduled for Summer Solstice weekend in a famously dry locale? But this is Japan, and who knows what kind of backroom sweetheart deals have led to our awkward present circumstances? It’s politics, stupid. That change comes at a glacial pace in this country bodes that next year and the year after will be bogged down in mud too.

In the meantime the show must go on. Though I didn’t personally witness it I have a vision of a rock and roll hippie grooving in the crowd– he’s taken off his shoes and socks and his shirt is long gone. He’s dancing by himself to the music, younger than me, less jaded, more faded, impressionable, likable, a zen moment kind of guy with a fancy footloose, an elemental sort of man, super in a way, a starring role in his own daydream, a dude enthralled by the spirit, a sight to behold, a rebel without a raincoat.

Fujirock Festival – Sideshows Steal The Show

Two questions are typically asked surrounding Fujirock: “Are you going?” and “How was it?” Recently the answer to the first has been yes, while the answer to the second generally begins with “Wet” and gets more complicated from there. Despite the weather perpetually being an issue during the three-day megafest in the mountains of Yuzawa, a little known town in rural Niigata, the mainstay of the now 13 year-old music festival is almost always the sideshows. So a fan would be excused if they were lured to the expensive midsummer exposition upon hearing that the likes of Oasis, Weezer, and Franz Ferdinand were headlining, but despite often disappointing sets by Green stage acts it’s the smaller, more carnival stages which hold the real untold treasures, just waiting to be discovered by the intrepid, if muddied, troubadour festival-goer.

Fujirock Festival – Sideshows Steal The Show

Fujirock Festival - Sideshows Steal The Show

Swedish gypsy punk band Räfven electrifies the audience at Fujirock

Truth is with over two hundred acts spanning the twelve or so stages it’s impossible to see everyone you would like to, or even a fraction of the talented musicians from all over the globe coalescing in the pine tree scented paradise of Naeba. So you pick, you choose, you try to schedule, but often you end up guessing or just plain stuck due to traffic jams, sudden downpours and mud delays. Sometimes these forays into chance take you toward the mini Naeba Shokudo stage on the edge of the Oasis foodcourt, sandwiched between the massive Green and more club-like Red Marquee stages, to happen upon bands like The Inspector Cluzo, a duet of drums and guitar who seem to have the classic bluesy-soul guitar rock highlighted with vocal bird call arpeggios sound down to a beautiful science. Or to the Orange Court, the farthest of the big stages (which was to host All-Night Fuji on Friday but had been turned into a field study in rainwater collection) to discover the gypsy jamband folk-punk stylings of Räfven (who performed an astonishing nine times), a infectively rabid band of street musicians all the way from Gothenburg. The Orange Court is also a place where someone like Juana Molina’s immense talent and ethereally disturbing voice and intricate instrumentation goes unappreciated on Sunday afternoon. Yet on Saturday evening in the more intimate Gypsy Avalon, it’s perfectly accompanied with a bit of wine from the nearby Organic Village and a space on the- shock and awe- semi-dry grass!

By far the best place to be a fan in the front is the Red Marquee, which was the only dry place in town all weekend. Potential electrocution might explain why Dinosaur Jr., who unloaded at least five more Marshall stacks on top of the already well-endowed PA equipment on hand, was scheduled to close the covered tent Saturday night. Not only is J. Mascis’ guitar – a massive wave of undulating sound wrapped in distortion in perfect time and balance to bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph- the loudest thing I’ve ever heard, it’s one of the most beautiful and melodic. Sadly, a few songs before they undoubtedly encored, I made a break for Public Enemy at the White Stage, headlining arguably the best stage / lineup combination of the entire weekend (Melvins, Zazen Boys, Bad Brains). Despite missing Flava Flav and Professor Griff due to “visa problems”, Chuck D promised a “real hip-hop show” and if the audience’s reaction was any indication, him promising to play their second studio LP It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back in its entirety (broken up only by a tribute to MJ, name dropping various websites – publicenemy.com, rapstation.com, and introducing a new artist) was the performance they were waiting for.

Fujirock Festival - Sideshows Steal The Show

Band Member Teaches Crowd to Live Tweet During Bright Eyes final show at Fujirock

Starting off well is paramount to lasting on your feet all day and into the night, and the best way to do that is by taking the Dragondola, which claims to be the world’s longest gondola lift (despite that not being true), for a ride. Lasting about 15 minutes and not only soaring 5.5 km toward the 1800-meter high Mt. Takenoko, it provides a much needed and breeze-filled getaway from the muddied hordes milling about like so many insects below. As the early afternoon creeps closer and the big names crawl out of their luxury hotel suites to fulfill their 50-minute sets, hitting the airlift back down the hill and grabbing a couple of the tastiest and cheapest beers at the festival from Tokyo Brewing Company is a must before braving the over-crowded walkways for the likes of frenetic rock Nordlander Ida Maria and her succinct pop-punk ditties or the fragile-looking Nick Cave cohort Rowland Howard whose snaky, smoky, whiskey-honed voice will do things to you long after he exits stage left. And then there’s Bright Eyes who, according to Conor Oberst, is not a band anymore. So their appearance at Fujirock was part of a “one-night world tour”, and will disband after the release of their next album. All this didn’t seem to bother the largely perplexed and oddly small audience gathered to hear the strong Saturday afternoon set in the Red Marquee tent. What was confusing was the attractive young lady sitting in a chair, texting, twittering, and occasionally giggling, next to the caterwauling Oberst (who can pull some truly interesting sounds from a simple acoustic guitar), working the crowd up into mini Midwest tornadoes of passion, ennui and release until finally, our mystery lady pulled out her voice -alongside Mike Moggis’ Cornet- and stole the show. Sayonara Bright Eyes.

Fujirock Music Festival

Fans Reach Out to Touch Peaches as She performs an out of her ind set at Fujirock

Other notables were Tortoise, DJ Towa Tei, Longwave, Simian Mobile Disco and the standout State Circus of Mongolia. Glam and electronica rocker Peaches wins for most mouth-wateringly fruitlike S&M-ish costumes, fuck you swagger and stage presence, the longest stage dive (that I was witness to) while maintaining the song’s chorus (“Harder, harder”) perfectly, and just overall raw sexual energy and love of music. As the forty-plus year old Merrill Nisker (backed by the Herms) deftly maneuvered her hour-long set to the audience’s rapt glee, in support of her latest album, I Feel Cream, no one was thinking, “Hmmm, who’s on at the Green stage?”

Holy Fuck opening for the Airborne Toxic Event on the White Stage was an auspicious beginning to Sunday which turned out to peak with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s powerful set (see full gallery of CYHSY photos) of first album classics interspersed with a few newer tunes before petering out with Animal Collective’s introspective- at times masturbatorial- and overly hyped performance. By the time Röyksopp Nordic electro-magnetic vibes began spewing forth I had the good fortune to catch a guitarless Rivers Cuomo crooning the classic “My Name Is Jonas” while simultaneously being bitten by several ticks before passing out from three days of mud and blood, sweat and bugs, and of course lots of great side acts who deserve main stage attention. Like Räfven, Juana Molina, Diplo, Comeback My Daughters, Wilko Johnson, Justin Nozuka, Soil & “Pimp” Session, The Inspector Cluzo, Zaz and Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, among many others, who made multiple showings across three days in what feels more like an attempt to fill time slots than any genuine desire on the part of the lower echelon of artists’ to extend their stay. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but among other possibilities, it could be they weren’t invited to play at Fujirock’s sister festival in Korea, the Jisan Valley Rock Fest, like scores of other larger names were. Enough politics, the fans scream, give us more music. No problem.

Fujirock Festival - Sideshows Steal The Show

Patti Smith live at Fujirock

Ebony Bones takes home best costumes and most color amid the rock-steady downpours of Friday at the Green Stage. Despite hearing that Oasis wasn’t that bad (I couldn’t bring myself to actually watch) and stripping White Stage headliners The Neville Brothers of any audience whatsoever, the Green Stage redeemer is by far Patti Smith, who put on one of the more powerful performances I’ve been witness to at a festival. Shame that it came on Friday afternoon, as she seems as confident as ever, spitting and smiling alongside longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye and surprise guest Tom Verlaine. She sang as sure of voice as the wind pushing the sheets of rain down on the thousands gathered, watching her stomp through guitar romps and shake her trademark black beanie in the air declaring, “this one’s for the children!” amid dedications to Haile Selassie and MJ. Ending with the explosive “Rock and Roll Nigger,” aided by Verlaine’s intricate guitar work, Smith can still go blow for blow with the biggest names and walk away smiling.

Rumor has it Naeba’s days of hosting the popular festival are over and the days of Fujirock being nowhere near Mt. Fuji may be at an end. Who knows where the roving Japanese festival will end up? Likely I will be asked, “Are you going?” to which I will undoubtedly say yes (if I can hitch a ride out there…) and to the always difficult to answer, “How was it?” I’ll likely say, worth the time, effort and extraneous cash, if you should have it.

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