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Friday, Aug. 4, 2006

FUJI ROCK 2006

72-hour party people

Japan's foremost music festival, Fuji Rock, might be over for another year, but for those who couldn't make the trek to Naeba Ski Resort last weekend, or the 130,000 who did but couldn't catch everything, our reporting team -- Daniel Robson, Simon Bartz, Philip Brasor, Mark Thompson, David Hickey, Richard Smart and Jason Jenkins -- offer their postparty analysis.

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The Fuji Rock Festival regularly serves up big name crowd pleasers to headline the Green Stage. They get the masses moving, if not always the critics.

Friday night saw a triumphant set from U.K. art-rockers Franz Ferdinand. Drummer Paul Thomson has recently become a first-time father and despite pulling out of many other international gigs, he was unable to resist the band's Fuji set. Reunited with their friend after several shows with a stand-in, the band played with real vigor.

Frontman Alex Kapranos strutted around the stage, his white trousers aglow under the stage lights. He's a sincere showman, which is different from cool, of course; when he introduced his band mates in a faux Deep-South accent, it was cringingly embarrassing. But the spectacle made up for the lack of diversity in their songs, breathing life into a set that could easily have fallen flat.

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In front of the Green Stage was as big a crush as ever, as first Franz Ferdinand (above) and the following night Red Hot Chili Peppers entertained the masses at Fuji Rock Festival '06. MARK THOMPSON, DAVID HICKEY PHOTOS
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To some, California's Red Hot Chili Peppers are Fuji's most irritating band; four one-time innovators surfing a wave of mediocrity and puerile humor. But on Saturday, they pulled a staggering 30,000-strong crowd, as thrilled fans engulfed every square inch of the Green arena. I'm just not sure why.

"I got Hello Kitty pregnant," joked Anthony Kiedis. "She said she was on the Pill . . ."

The band then launched into another lengthy display of the self-indulgent fretwork that has enabled them to release a double-CD album containing not one interesting song. Perhaps the highlight was hirsute guitarist John Frusciante's solo rendition of The Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love." He's no singer, but it came across as a tender, touching moment among a lot of otherwise vacant music.

The Strokes are on top form these days, with 2006's "First Impressions of Earth" album containing their most charged music so far. But their live show has always been rather static, making them an odd choice to headline Sunday's schedule. Older material such as "Hard To Explain" is still fun, with vocalist Julian Casablancas drawling over spiky guitars and bouncing rhythms. That song harks back to a day when The Strokes were the Next Big Thing; the inevitable crash led to a disappointing second album, but they've learned from it, and songs from "First Impressions Of Earth" sound vital and fresh on the Green Stage.

But to get a real feel for Fuji Rock, you need to walk past the main arena and out to the far corners of the grounds, where the unexpected, and the inspired, takes place . . . (Daniel Robson)

* * * * *

Thursday evening craic

This year Fuji Rock saved its best for first. Some might regard Flogging Molly as a weaker version of The Pogues. They are not. They are less sozzled, totally focused and, with an arsenal of rip-roaring folk-rock songs, the first crowd-surfing of the weekend was witnessed during the free-entry prefestival party at the Red Marquee. When the fiddle solos kicked in, the mountains surrounding us were awash with several thousand screams.

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An acrobat hangs from an installation at the Palace of Wonder.

The Mollys ripped a Green Stage crowd into a frenzy the next morning too, and by the end of the festival Flogging Molly had won the T-shirt contest with legions of fans adorned in them. (Simon Bartz)

Friday-morning green scene

FRF '06 launched the Global Cool Campaign, which encourages people to help reduce carbon emissions. Campaign founder Dan Morrell, accompanied by actor Orlando Bloom, opened the festival proper and introduced the first official "pledge," though the young Japanese man who made it didn't seem to know his own name. Wearing big sunglasses and a bigger smile, the kid yelled something that sounded like "Rock 'n' Roll!" Bloom added "Paaarty!" Who said saving the world can't be fun? (Philip Brasor)

Nap music: We all need a little sleep to recharge our batteries. By the stream next to the White Stage I overheard Tommy Guerrero's soporific prog-guitar c**p nearby and passed out. Thanks Tommy. I needed that nap. (S.B.)

On the cusp: Shooting photographs much of the time, I flitted around, moth-like, rarely staying for a whole performance. It's not an approach I'd recommend, partly because there's too much soggy ground to cover, and partly because if a performance is good, it needs to be savored to the dregs. Mystery Jets, however, blew me away with just one song ("You Can't Fool Me Dennis") at the Red Marquee, the most reliable place to catch a group on the cusp of stardom. The band, from London, comes with an interesting bio -- the fiftysomething father of vocalist/multi-instrumentalist songwriter Blaine Harrison, Henry, plays in his son's band (on guitar, keyboards, percussion). But even without the baggage, the music -- progressive-psychedelic-garage pop -- engages you instantly. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah canceled at the last minute, but the Jets easily picked up the indie baton and ran with it. (Mark Thompson)

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Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon

Fueling up: The Oasis food stall area was the best place to get lethal drinks. The bar flag being waved by the Red Shoes bar staffer outside had been signed by a bunch of rock 'n' roll animals including Dirty Pretty Things. DPT played a frenetic set later that day on the Green Stage, which included Libertines songs such as "I Get Along" that had the crowd wetting their pants. (S.B.)

Shagadelic: Yoshimi Yokota's OOIOO dabbled in double-drums and queasy bass lines with percussive jams, high-pitched screeches and not a shred of sanity on the Orange Court. They're not quite as pretentious as that sounds. But nearly. Later on, The 50 Kaitens played geeky '50s rock 'n' roll on the Rookie A Go-Go stage, their blue suits and Austin Powers haircuts belying a fierce punk edge. Always a fun live band, the trio's amped-up antics were a thrill. (Daniel Robson)

Friday night -- Old skool cool

What Afra & Incredible Beatbox band lack in definite articles they make up for in rapid-fire breaks, beats and rhymes. The three-piece may have been compared to The Beastie Boys, but their crowd-pleasing sense of fun put them more in the camp of Wales' Goldie Lookin' Chain. They even performed a cover of The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army." Little surprise then that Afra and his cohorts Kei and K-Moon induced frenzied nodding from the hip-hop heads too cool to dance -- and ear-to-ear grins from everyone else. (David Hickey)

Tuck and spin: Afra's label mate Tucker, who performed straight after the beatbox trio, should be seen live to truly appreciate his talent. Like Cornelius, Tucker is a multi-instrumentalist virtuoso (turntables, drums, keyboards, setting fire to his keys, you name it) who expertly references every genre out there and still cuts a new path. Best of all, he's got a wicked sense of humor. His manic drum 'n' bass version of "Sesame Street" surely put a smile on every face in the tent. (M.T.)

Midnight mayhem

After jumping around like looneys to Madness, it was off to Milk Bar in the Oasis food stalls, the festival's after-hours party area, where the staff allowed us to make our own cocktails. Who knows what happened after the rum, vodka, Baileys and milks we drank. (Richard Smart)

Dark angel: Sadly I witnessed my first ever fight at Fuji Rock and sadder still I got involved. The bad gaijin guy abusing my Japanese friend got his shirt torn off and was sent scampering into the night like a wounded dog. Then strolling back to my ryokan a woman aged about 80 approached me and handed me a cucumber. Then I was bitten by a dog. You always get one weird night at this festival if you party hard enough. (S.B.)

Saturday dawns, high in the clouds

Far above the festival, the Daydreaming Stage was accessible only via cable car. Stages and crowds gave way on the ascent to wooded vistas, clear-blue creeks and twittering birds. Up top, early-morning DJs spun for those still dancing from the night before, while staff in animal costumes -- lion, panda, tiger, etc -- frolicked in the grass with the young and giggling.

Fuji Rock is as much about spectacle as it is music. Giant candles, disco balls and inflatable characters decorated forest paths linking the stages, while projectors turned the hillsides into snowfall and blinking, yawning human faces. Best of all were those glowing, eerily attractive alien women on stilts striding through the grounds, stopping only to pick up unsuspecting passersby and hug them. (Jason Jenkins)

A rainy afternoon

Depression, the chills, and cold sweats (the latter courtesy of cigarette girls clad in hot pants) while I sat alone under a tent in the Orange Court as the heavens finally did what they'd been threatening and unleashed their first -- and thankfully only -- major downpour of the weekend. Refuge, that is, until Mitsuki Kimura with Shinji Miyake and the FRF All Stars came on stage and treated a soaked crowd to an ersatz blues 'n' soul revue. No doubt the group was hoping to create the communal love-in vibes vacated by Kiyoshiro Imawano, King of Fuji Rock, who was forced to abdicate his throne at the last minute due to illness. They failed. (D.H.)

Show girls: Hemlines were up this year. The Like's lead singer Z. Berg, barely out of high school, wore a schoolgirl uniform ensemble that showed lots of thigh for her performance at the Red Marquee. Alt.-country chanteuse Jenny Lewis (who played on the same stage that night) sported a silver lame miniskirt that complemented the gold numbers worn by her backup singers, the Watson twins. But nothing topped the go-go dancer shift worn by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon (that night, Green Stage). Girl rockers take note: Kim is 53 -- and hot! (P.B.)

Saturday evenin' ya'all

Hip-hop was under-represented this year, and what there was strayed from the ordinary. Cee-Lo forsook rapping for soul-singing with Gnarls Barkley, and Blackalicious' Gift of Gab delivered his quick-fire syllables to the organic contingent at the Field of Heaven. Atmosphere's set was the most conventional rap show, but Slug isn't your typical MC, and not because he's half-white. Most rappers are hard about everything. Slug is just hard on himself. "You're too nice," he said. "Usually, people throw s**t at us." (P.B.)

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Tucker

Lounge lizards: By day, Naeba Shokudo is a shoes-off lounge spot near the Oasis area. By night it becomes one of the fest's most interesting side-stages. Here people watch from both sides: the lounge area behind and a grassy knoll up front. Both were filled for Japanese shoegazers 101A, and jam-packed for Big Willie's Burlesque, as well as a solo set by Jun Nagami, whose band, Eastern Youth, rocked the White Stage hours earlier. (J.J.)

UA vs Karen O: Saturday night was all about the (anti)divas -- specifically kooky Japanese vocalist UA's considered cool verses the whacked-out dementia of Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. UA looked sensational on the Orange Court stage in a low-cut emerald-green one-piece and a Mohican hair-do which rose up at least a foot above and behind her head (shame about her coffee-table jazz, though). On the White Stage, Karen O went further with a butterfly makeup face pattern, a sleeveless blue leotard with lightning strikes across it, skin-tight acrylic pants and a sequined glove last seen at a Michael Jackson court appearance. Occasionally she'd throw her arms out in front of her and jump across the stage resembling Daryl Hannah's malfunctioning painted replicant in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner." By the time Yeah Yeah Yeahs rolled out the single "Maps," she was wearing a belt more suited to a heavyweight boxing champ. Karen O defeats UA with an early knockout! (D.H.)

Late Saturday was smokin'

A huge crowd had assembled by Saturday night at the Green Stage, a mix of fans eager to see Red Hot Chili Peppers and Denki Groove. Though the latter's techno seemed dated, the highlight of the show was when one of the singers walked on stage dressed as Mount Fuji, complete with volcanic smoke pouring from his head.

Headlining the White Stage on the same night, Scissor Sisters were off the scale on the campometer but their infectious house bass lines, disco rhythms and the band's pure joy of performing on stage got the juices flowing. (R.S.)

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Insect woman

Sunday morning snarl

Guitar Wolf exploded onto the Red Marquee stage at 10:20 a.m. (presumably just before their bedtime), filling the tent with garage-punk noise. And then they stopped and combed their hair. These rotten rock 'n' rollers are ludicrous showmen: New Bass Wolf, U.G., repeatedly kicked over his mic stand while frontman Seiji leapt into the audience with his guitar. Greasy, loud and utterly cool, Guitar Wolf were motorbike made flesh. (D.R.)

Big beats: Though stage slots are strongly linked to record sales, there are identifiable programming factors at Fuji that are beyond a band's Billboard ranking. One is the need for seriously upbeat music on Sunday morning on the main stage. It's often a nonrock band, usually something a bit "exotic." And there's usually something to promote local culture. Kodo fit the bill on both counts. A highlight was three percussionists with hand-drums with what appeared to be massive drumsticks strapped to their backs, which they slapped on the stage in choreographed thwacks. It was all good chest-vibrating entertainment, but next time I'd love to see Kodo in the more sacred space of Field of Heaven, rather than in a mud arena. (M.T.)

White vs Wolf: Jack White is a star and Wolfmother's Andrew Stockdale wants to be one. In fact, he wants to be Jack White. The voice, the guitar licks, the appropriation of ballsy 1970s rock: If Stockdale hasn't copied White's style he's certainly internalized it. Appearing the same day on the Green Stage, White's new band, The Raconteurs, played only 35 minutes but blew the competition away, while Wolfmother just blew hot air. Stockdale's only edge was tonsorial: His overgrown Afro was slightly more telegenic than White's greasy lank locks. (P.B.)

Afternoon gridlock

Fishmans' singer Shinji Sato passed away in 1999, just as the band was hitting a major peak. After a long hiatus, the band began to play limited gigs that featured a series of semifamous guest vocalists to fill in for Sato. Their music cut across several genres and markets, and probably had a considerable influence on much of today's reggae-influenced J-pop. Put it all together and you get a major traffic jam around Field of Heaven that stranded dozens of poor souls on the Boardwalk. At least they were in the shade, listening to the band's mellow grooves. (M.T.)

Evening crunch

About to hoof it back to the White Stage for Super Furry Animals, I bumped into a friend who was headed to see The Thrill headline at Orange Court, adding another kilometer to my U-turn. To top it off, while waiting for the band to finish its sound check, I crunch a tooth filling while demolishing a beef kebab. But as soon as The Thrill, a 14-piece big band of seasoned professionals, started sexily strutting their stuff on the small stage, the pain and regret evaporated. The Thrill offered the most "adult" closer that night (all the band was dressed in their finest cocktail-lounge attire), but it was hardly music for chin-stroking. The horn section, which included the whole sax family, took swinging beats and spun them on a dime, and razor-sharp solos came fast and furious. (What's not to love about a band that gives its tuba player time in the limelight?) The Thrill only played for about 400 people, but it gave everyone plenty of room to move. And that's just what we did. (M.T.)

Demons: The sampling of the Bill Hicks quote "All governments are liars and murderers" by Super Furry Animals together with projected images of Stalin and Bush among other demons on a big screen might be stating the obvious, but regular reminders of the obvious are needed to prevent people from slipping into the oblivious. The band arguably played the most interesting set at FRF. It was imbued with a sense of melancholy: perhaps due to the slow folk songs that were delivered between more upbeat pop but mainly because they rarely moved around, didn't talk to the crowd much, and this time did not wear their big furry yeti suits on stage. Their set ends, appropriately, with the anarchic techno-funk of "The Man Don't Give a F**k." (S.B.)

Dripping: Broken, battered, drunk and smelly, Nightmares on Wax's downbeat grooves late on in the Red Marquee were just what the doctor ordered, even if the funky dance moves of a couple of days before had been replaced by slight hip movements, nodding, and, er, not much else. (R.S.)

Passion and sweat: As might have been predicted, the Crystal Palace "tent" (a new addition to FRF this year) in the Palace of Wonder burned brightest in the wee hours. Maybe it was the bar's signature drink (a Guinness and champagne concoction they called Black Velvet) that went to everyone's heads, but the crowds at old-school rockers like Barrence Whitfield and Katteni Shiyagare and veteran ska trombonist Rico rivaled any headliner in terms of sweat or passion. The final crescendo happened early Monday morning during Japanese Burlesque troupe Murasaki Baby Doll. Clad in pasties, panties and purple nighties, MBD led us through a pumped-up version of The Ramones' "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?" leaving everyone with sore throats and weak knees. (J.J.)

Fitting finale: Many people expected Happy Mondays to be a disaster waiting to happen but they were remarkably together . . . well, for these bunch of notoriously wasted, middle-aged reprobates, that is. The bass and drums kept the funk-rock steamrollering along and singer Shaun Ryder's voice was better than ever even if he did forget half the words and invented expletive-riddled lyrics on the spot. "Hallelujah" was sublime, "Step On" created a few thousand Bez's in the field and "24-Hour Party People" was a fitting finale to a beautiful sunny day and another classic Fuji Rock. (S.B)

Visit The Japan Times' Fuji Rock Festival blog and tell us about your festival experience: jt-fuji.com To see more of our Fuji Rock photos, plus those taken by other fans, check out http://www.flickr.com/groups/78343337@N00/


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