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Sunday, Aug. 10, 2003

State of the rock nation, in 35-min. bites


Special to The Japan Times

Since they took place on successive weekends, it's difficult not to compare this year's editions of the Fuji Rock Festival and Summer Sonic, so let's do it. Fuji is bucolic where SS is urban. Fuji's vibe is communal and free-spirited, while the SS vibe is commercial and controlling. Fuji is populated by hippies-at-heart, while SS attracts 22-year-olds.

News photo
A member of The Polyphonic Spree tries to distract 22-year-olds at Summer Sonic.

And what about the music? Fuji's lineup was huge and eclectic: something for everyone. Summer Sonic's represented the state of commercial popular music at this moment; or, more precisely, the state of commercial rock music. The closest thing to hip-hop was Blondie's "Rapture"; and electronica was either reduced to a history lesson (Devo) or absorbed into a rock context. Guitar bands were the norm, and while detractors will claim there was too much pop-punk, it came from the four biggest pop-punk bands in the world right now -- Blink 182, Sum 41, New Found Glory and Good Charlotte.

Held simultaneously in Osaka and Makuhari in Chiba, SS may be commercial but it's commercial in an honest and ambitious way. You want the most popular bands of the moment? We'll give you the most popular band of the moment. Radiohead was the reason the festival sold out, and it meant something more than just star power. The first hugely popular band since The Beatles who continually challenge their audience, Radiohead has achieved its lofty position not by regurgitating a successful formula, but by setting the bar higher with every album. They are the best proof that the market appreciates something other than predigested music. And they delivered with a heart-stopping festival-capping performance at the Chiba Marine Stadium Sunday night.

On the other hand, The Strokes, who two years ago launched the garage-band revival that was represented elsewhere on the roster by Mando Diao, The Greenhornes and The Star Spangles, now seem ready for Vegas. When they last played Japan, they were still snotty punks who didn't care if you liked them or not, but their stadium show Sunday showed a band whose music and attitude had become set in concrete. They were polite, tight and contrite, and as far from the cutting-edge as they were close to it in 2001.

Complementing these front-runners were new bands who arrived with a buzz. The Kills, a few paces behind The White Stripes in the blues-rock revival parade, didn't live up to their rep, and for old-fashioned reasons: muddy sound, limited musical palette, an inability to convey what makes them distinctive on record. In contrast, relative old-timers the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion were everything a blues-rock band are supposed to be (albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way): solid, instinctive, good-naturedly raunchy.

Sometimes old is new, as in the case of two celebrated Southern rock revivalists, Kings of Leon and My Morning Jacket. The Kings' speaking-in-tongues Dixie punk was more booty-shaking than the Jacket's reverb-heavy jams, but both were equally transporting -- and equally frustrating given that the organizers scheduled them at the exact same time. Fans interested in comparing the two couldn't appreciate both shows in their entirety.

Revivalism also characterized British Columbia's Hot Hot Heat and New York's The Rapture. HHH re-created the nervous minimalism of early British new wave with brief songs that set the noontime audience on fire. The Rapture is the last of the recent Brooklyn dance-punk bands to release a full-length album (out next month), and the large crowd that showed up to hear their bone-dry disco was confounded by the 35-minute performance limit. Just as they started to get into it, the set ended.

The most impressive aspect of the festival may have been this strict adherence to schedule. Most of the Japanese bands played on the Factory Stage, which was set up in the same hall as the Sonic Stage but at the other end, so when a band was playing on one stage crews could set up the next band on the other one. This clockwork efficiency made SS really feel like a convention.

The only band that wasn't on time was Blondie, probably because they didn't factor in the time needed for Deborah Harry to put on her makeup. Harry's effort to re-create past glamour was apparent, but she was in great voice and the newly augmented ensemble played both old hits and new stuff in a spirit of fun, not obligation. Devo, on the other hand, couldn't avoid sounding obligatory. Their show was airlifted whole from 1981, thus making them look like an even older nostalgia band than they were. And the less said about the Doors 21st Century and Ian Astbury's embarrassing attempt to embody Jim Morrison's excesses without understanding what made him special as a frontman the better.

The Polyphonic Spree would have been better off at Fuji. Featuring 24 singers and musicians dressed in white robes and performing original pop songs about the joys of friendship and mild weather, they opened the Sunday festivities at the stadium under a blazing sun, and their infectious, big-hearted gospel music did much to dispel any bad feelings brought on by SS's draconian crowd-control methods and ugly utilitarian venues.

As religiously possessed, but by darker forces, was The Mars Volta, the progressive rock band led by guitarist Omar Rodriguez and vocalist Cedric Bixler, formerly of At the Drive-In. Since they last came to Japan in spring 2002 the quintet has gelled into a truly organic unit. The group would lurch and stumble incomprehensibly before falling into a groove or funk pattern that invaded the audience as violently as it did Bixler, who practically destroyed the drum set he wasn't playing and even grabbed on to the camera crane when it got too close.

If The Polyphonic Spree neutralized the nonhuman aspects of the festival, The Mars Volta embraced them, and it says something significant about Summer Sonic's blend of commercial calculation and sense of discovery that they were the two best shows of the weekend.



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