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Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2003

Talent-laden 'festival' to bring back a pinch of that old magic

Special to The Japan Times

Once upon a time, rock shows were long, drawn-out affairs, with two or three opening acts who could be counted on to play as if they were headliners. Magic Rock Out, an event that will be held in Kobe and Tokyo in early February, is too limited in scope to be called a "festival" (only one stage), and with at least four bands, each of whom could easily headline on their own, it's too broad to fit under the label of a conventional concert. So in many ways it's a throwback.

News photo
News photo
Foo Fighters are the de facto headliners on a bill that also features musical heavywights Death in Vegas (below) and Wilco (above).
News photo

Originally, the event offered five headline-worthy bands, but the Vines, Sydney's answer to celebrity rock, dropped out a few weeks ago, so all you folks who think they're the only band that's giving The Strokes a run for their money don't need to read any further. The rest of us will be more than happy with the remainder of the bill, which is so varied in style and temperament as to be almost perverse.

The de facto headliner is the Foo Fighters, whose drawing power will guarantee that the promoters make back their dime. Coming off a tour as drummer for Queens of the Stone Age and feeding off his most well-received album ever, "One By One," Foo frontman Dave Grohl should be pumped. Though it's clear that Nirvana made Grohl a rich man, that band was more or less a blip in his career rather than the defining moment most people assume it was. His heart was always in songwriting, and the demos he made following Kurt Cobain's suicide started one of the biggest label-bidding wars in rock history. He claimed that most of those songs predated Nirvana, but the best thing about the album they appeared on, "Foo Fighters," was also the best thing about Nirvana: clean pop melodies and punky crunch. On "One By One," Grohl has refined this formula to a kind of hard-rock purity; thus the Foo Fighters' ascent into Rolling Stone's pantheon of genius rock bands for the new millennium.

Also on the bill is Death in Vegas, a duo of English lads who go by the names of Richard Fearless and Tim Holmes. The British press is calling the title track of "Scorpion Rising," their new album, the best Oasis song since 1996 -- the lead vocals are by Liam Gallagher. Noel is sure to be pissed at that, which is probably the real reason the press say it. The song itself is psychedelic phase-shifting pop with a driving trap-set beat and vocals mixed far out front. Like the Chemical Brothers, DIV rely heavily on guest vocalists to push their engagingly simple electronica into the realm of rock, but they've proven that they can fend for themselves and get the blood moving.

Probably the best reason to attend the show is Wilco, The Beatles of alt country, who will be making their Japan debut. Preceded by anticorporate hype, which is the best kind of hype, their latest album, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," comes freighted with the kind of expectations you wouldn't want to wish on the Goo Goo Dolls. But it's important to note that even if you didn't hear it on the Internet (where the band offered it free of charge for almost nine months) and don't read rock criticism as a habit, you'll probably find it pretty damn cool. Whatever problems leader Jeff Tweedy has with girls and however much he mourns the lack of excitement in his life, he manages to couch these mundane miseries in a catchy, laid-back style. Tweedy knows what a perfectly turned pop-rock song is supposed to do, and the buttery sad textures of his music are just the thing for a drunken, overcast afternoon. How well that translates in an arena setting is anyone's guess, but nobody constructs more solid tunes.

Rounding out the lineup is Backdrop Bomb, one of the stalwarts of Japan's indie hardcore scene. In fact, BDB stands apart from that scene, mainly because they boast two lead vocalists, both of whom forgo the usual throat-tearing rants for actual singing. In order for them to be heard, the instrumental trio led by guitarist Jin Tanaka opts for funky complexity rather than crunchy overkill. Despite this more reserved musical tack, the group sacrifices nothing in terms of dynamic power. Songs move confidently and excitingly from full-throttle thrash to dub reggae without losing sight of the song's melodic goals. Sometimes, the reggae toasting and rap intros sound forced, but whatever else BDB claim to be, they aren't pretenders.

Magic Rock Out: Feb. 7 at 7 p.m., Kobe World Kinen (minus Backdrop Bomb), Smash West, (06) 6361-0313; Feb. 8 at 6 p.m., Makuhari Messe, Smash, (03) 3444-6751. Tickets are 10,000 yen. Death in Vegas: Feb. 5 at 7 p.m., Shibuya Club Quattro, Smash, (03) 3444-6751. Tickets are 5,500 yen. Foo Fighters: Feb. 10 at 7 p.m., Zepp Fukuoka, (092) 791-0999. Tickets are 6,500 yen.

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