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Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2005

City of sounds

Feeling the heat at Summer Sonic

Special to The Japan Times

Summer Sonic is an urban rock festival. Most rock festivals are held outside of cities, preferably far away from them, but even those that take place in cities usually utilize parks. Summer Sonic embraces urban life Ethe concrete, the architecture, even the air-conditioning. If you attend both days you commute to the festival. Even the artists commute, since the festival is held simultaneously in two cities, Tokyo and Osaka. They simply switch locations on the second day. When you are at the festival, you remain within a closed environment that is entirely man-made. Moving around it is like moving around a city Elogistics are essential to enjoyment.

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Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails pours out his soul to punters. at the Marine Stadium

Ever since the "Tokyo" edition moved permanently to the Chiba Marine Stadium and the Makuhari Convention Center four years ago, the organizers have continually made adjustments to improve crowd flow and accessibility, but even this year, with larger spaces provided between the three main indoor stages, there were still bottlenecks. And while they set up more tables in the concession areas, there were still people sitting on the floor. City planning is difficult.

The new Island Stage, a small venue that showcased mostly Japanese bands, was tucked away in the corner of one of the indoor concession areas, and because some of the bands were popular EZazen Boys and Polysics, in particular Ethe crowds spilled out into the common area. This urban quality created interesting contrasts. The indoor concerts were basically subterranean. While watching someone play on the curiously named Mountain Stage you could see people walking outside in the hallway one floor above it. Also, people slept everywhere, making it feel like an enormous tenderloin bus station. On the other hand, the tiny Beach Stage was really at the beach. You left with sand in your shoes.

Summer Sonic's uniqueness evokes other reactions. "Is this an airplane hangar?" asked Win Butler, the lead singer of Arcade Fire during their set at the Sonic Stage. When told that it was a convention center he said that the next song would include "a Power Point presentation."

Heavenly fire

Being an urbanite, I found it tolerable that several acts I wanted to see were scheduled practically on top of one another. In the same way I've absorbed the infrastructural character of Tokyo into my daily routine, over the years I've learned to navigate Summer Sonic for maximum concert enjoyment.

TV On The Radio on stage turned out to be much more exciting than TV On The Radio on record, and lead singer Tunde Adebimpe's charismatic performance held me in thrall throughout the Brooklyn band's 40-minute set at the Mountain Stage, so I stayed until the end, thus risking missing the opening of the Arcade Fire's concert on the Sonic Stage, but I also knew the previous group had started a little late, and was able to savor the eight-piece Montreal group's antic symphonic pop in all its dramatic glory. Without coming down from Adebimpe's high, I was carried even higher as the Arcade Fire strummed and sawed and beat their way into heaven.

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Rapper M.I.A. kept the crowd moving with her minimal beats.

As transported as I was, I instinctively left during the last song to catch M.I.A. at the Urban Stage and arrived during her first song. I half-expected the high to dissipate since the Sri Lanka-to-London rapper has a reputation of still being green in terms of live shows, but as minimal as the beats and presentation were, she kept the crowd moving with her nursery rhyme-inflected flow. Her ambiguous political views (her dad is a Tamil Tiger) may have made less of an impression on the audience, but the auxiliary singer made a probably inadvertent social point when she said to the crowd, "Ladies, you need to step up Emen, you need to step back."

In the end, M.I.A. turned out to be still green. She ended the show too early, and then rushed back for another song, but by then it was too late. I was off to another show.

Cock-rock comeback

Summer Sonic seems to have a firm grip on the commercial music zeitgeist, both indie and mainstream. In the past there was a surplus of punk bands, but this year punk was in relatively short supply, which could indicate that it's peaked.

Cock-rock seems to be making a comeback. The Marine Stadium on Saturday was practically wall-to-wall with shag haircuts and snooty rock-star attitude: Towers of London, Rooster, Buckcherry and a progenitor of the genre, Deep Purple, who played every song you remember, but may just as soon want to forget. This style was found in the convention center, too. Louis XIV, a group of youngsters from California, even assumed English accents and a flip sexist attitude to go along with their T-Rexy blues. They dedicated a song about jailbait called "Illegal Tender" to "our favorite part of Japan Eall the young girls." It was meant as a compliment.

Old is new

Deep Purple was not the only nostalgia act, but they were the oldest. So old, in fact, that they sounded new. Nostalgia was inescapable for people who came of age as music lovers between the mid-1980s and the early '90s. Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant revived Echo and the Bunnymen for the 50th time. Roddy Frame did an acoustic set of Aztec Camera songs, and the La's stretched their one and only album, released almost 15 years ago, into an hour-long set. Even Ian Brown, dressed in what looked like pajamas and dancing like a trained monkey, dipped liberally into the Stone Roses' catalog. I didn't see Duran Duran, but someone told me they looked even older than Deep Purple, which is understandable. To this person, Deep Purple have always been old. Duran Duran are suddenly in their 40s!

Something to shout about

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With plenty to be angry about, Public Enemy's message still sounded as powerful as ever.

The nostalgia was bittersweet for Public Enemy, which was reduced to Chuck D and reinstated "Minister of Information" Professor Griff. PE's bombastic turntablist Terminator X has been replaced by DJ Lord and Chuck's better half, Flava Flav, was missing in action on account of what Chuck called "passport issues."

But they brought the noise, and the emotional power of the audience's reaction to PE's old-school metal-and-funk-inspired hip-hop had nothing to do with nostalgia, though Chuck himself displayed nostalgic tendencies by giving props to blues and Memphis soul, introducing the band's guitarist as being "in the tradition of B.B. King and Buddy Guy." But he wasn't so nostalgic that he wouldn't pass up an opportunity to diss Elvis.

Of course, they played the hits E"Welcome to the Terrordome," "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," "Fight the Power" Ebut there was nothing hackneyed about the presentation. It sounded as fresh as it did back in the day, because the immediacy of PE's political thrust informs their music with the kind of conviction that most artists have to will on themselves after playing the same songs for 15 years. Maybe it's the war in Iraq, which helped inspire "Son of a Bush," in which Chuck got the entire crowd to give the finger to the current American president. Whatever. Chuck still has something to get worked up about, and he translates those feelings directly. Continuing with the gestures, he also asked for the peace sign and the crowd anticipated him. Did Chuck know it was the eve of the 60th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War? No matter, the connection was made.

Turning Japanese

The best Japanese band I saw was Hige. Playing an elastic, bottom-heavy form of hard rock you can really dance to, and featuring two drummers, the group gained a lot by being totally unexpected. But "unexpected" comes in many forms.

I've seen the hugely popular Orange Range on TV and didn't get much from their rap-metal. The setting obviously makes all the difference. On the Marine Stage in front of hordes of moshing fans they seemed like an entirely different band. Likewise Ai, the Los Angeles-born R&B singer, doesn't make a distinct impression on the small screen, but with a full band on the Urban Stage she rocked the crowd with the kind of pop smarts that Mariah Carey lost when she toppled headfirst into hip-hop. And then there's Puffy, or, as they called themselves at Summer Sonic, Puffy AmiYumi, the name foisted upon the singing duo when they decided to enter the American market. Unlike most Japanese pop musicians, they have succeeded in the States, probably because of their audience: children. Ami and Yumi, whose sweet-voiced, sweet-tempered pop is irresistible to all ages, now star in an animated show on the Cartoon Network. The music is mostly candy-covered punk, but at Summer Sonic they played their Japanese material, one of the few successful attempts at grafting classic kayokyoku (traditional Japanese pop) onto Western rock. And it was a real rock show, which made me worry about the preschoolers who'd been brought by their parents. One little girl spent the entire show with her fingers in her ears and her face scrunched up in what looked like anger rather than pain.

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The Arcade Fire transported them to heaven.

What's the story?

Having seen Oasis more than once, I decided to forego the foreseeable crunch in the stadium. Sunday was sold out a long time ago, and judging by the number of Oasis T-shirts (not to mention the number of unofficial Oasis T-shirt vendors dodging the rent-a-cops everywhere) I'm sure they didn't come to see Weezer.

Still, you have to see at least one of these big headlining stadium shows just for the visceral thing. Nine Inch Nails' Saturday concert started with a bang. Under a quarter moon blurred by a gauze of haze, the packed stadium suddenly went pitch black. NIN's industrial metaloid attack started with blinding strobes, and frontman Trent Reznor, looking buff and butch and thus less adolescently suicidal than his songs would indicate, launched into his usual woe-is-me bellowing. The sound was excellent, the crowd responsive, and the attack relentless. But I had to catch a train.

Sonic superlatives
Best jam band: The Roots
Best-dressed: The Rakes, who looked like young London stockbrokers-on-holiday in their crisp cotton polo shirts.(Ginza Line)
Runner-up: The Arcade Fire, who apropos the title of their debut album, "Funeral," looked as if they'd dressed for one.
Most revealing comment: "You guys are crowd surfing! That's awesome!"-- 18-year-old Jemina Pearl Albegg, lead singer of the American garage-punk band Be Your Own Pet, who sounded as if she'd never seen the phenomenon before.
Biggest ingrate: Ian McCulloch who commented at the end of Echo and the Bunnymen's set that the '80s, during which he enjoyed his greatest success, "sucked."
Concession booth you are least likely to find at the Fuji Rock Festival: Hair, nail, and makeup salon
Most ill-informed: Former Suede vocalist Brett Anderson, who greeted the crowd that had come to see his latest band, the Tears, by saying, "How's it going, Super Sonic?"
Most disconcerting visuals: Mew's back-projected films, which feature snarling animals and disquieting dolls, even though the Danish band's pop is airy and gentle.
Luckiest: The Caesars, whose Sonic Stage show was packed like sardines because Bullet for My Valentine, scheduled for the adjoining Mountain Stage at the same time, canceled at the last minute. "We've never played in front of this many people before," one of the members said.

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