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Friday, Sept. 1, 2006
ROCK IN JAPAN '06
Fun for all the family
By SIMON BARTZ
Looking at all the music festivals this summer, Rock In Japan is a trip to detox heaven. It arrives in early August, a week after my favorite fest -- Fuji Rock -- but, unlike the mud, mountains and madness of Fuji, it's a place where you can take your kids, your mum and grandad, too. Everybody laps up the sun, the good vibes and the music.
Taking place in early August at Hitachi Seaside Park in Ibaraki Prefecture, a 90-minute train ride and short hop on the bus north of Tokyo, RiJ puts on Japanese bands exclusively and so it serves as a barometer of where Japanese music is at, showcasing everything from hip-hop (m-flo) to grungy rock (HiGE), with a big slab of cheesy pop -- some vintage cheddar, some processed crap -- sandwiched in between.
J-pop or J-rock -- any mainstream J-music in fact -- doesn't normally do it for me, but within the serene atmosphere of RiJ it all works perfectly. Maybe this is down to timing -- since The Strokes and the now-defunct Libertines, risk-taking, edgy rock music has been hard to find. So at RiJ I indulge in cheesy pop, and enjoy the taste.
Despite the sell-out crowd of 47,000 people per day over three days, there is no lining up for beer or food, no waiting for toilets (and they don't stink!), no gridlocks moving from stage to stage and very few staffers screaming into megaphones in your ear. Workers, like wombles, wander about the acres of green fields looking for discarded beer cups or cigarette butts, but have a hard time finding them.
Most people seem shocked that I'm here. I often get: "You're gaijin! Why are you here?" Two years ago I spotted no foreigners here, last year only one, but this year I spotted a whopping five. Japanese music is clearly catching on with gaijin -- check all the blogs on the Net -- but the ones I met were all guys with Japanese girlfriends. Maybe they're not here for the music.
Most bands here are those that eagerly bend over and are quite happy to be molested from behind by major record companies and accept being told what to do and when to do it. As the festival is the brainchild of the conservative Rockin' On magazine, I guess that's to be expected. The Wing Tent (supported by HMV, appropriately) debuted this year and is dedicated to "breaking bands." In reality, this means bands with commercial clout behind them who will be playing on bigger stages at this festival next year.
It's a shame this tent fails to represent the best of cutting-edge Japanese bands in the vibrant underground scene with new musical manifestos such as Saturns, Red Vacuum Bacteria and Last Target. I watch tune-deprived Shimokitazawa-indie-types Nico Touches the Walls and the Nirvana-esque HiGE and it does little for me.
"The key changes are great. And it's J-Pop with a punk edge," says my sidekick, maybe taking the piss, but he's kicking up dust dancing to Kaela Kimura and her big hit "Riruri Riruha" at the main Grass Stage. She's thought of as an idol by many, and she is a cute ex-model, but her no-frills style at RiJ -- simple top and trousers and non-dramatic hair -- makes her look more like one of your friends rather than an untouchable star. It's like partying with a mate at a giant karaoke bar and we love it.
Cocco, headlining Saturday night on the same stage, has earned cred among many for turning her back on the industry a few years after she broke big (J-pop doesn't usually "do" comebacks) and last year she collaborated with members of Quruli in a band called Singer Songer and they weren't too bad. And she doesn't just write dumb songs about beautiful relationships; she dips her J-pop into a little of the dark stuff.
Things do take a turn to the dark side at the Lake Stage when it seems like the place is being evacuated. It's not because I have been skinny-dipping in the lake behind the stage and frightened them off, but because everyone's rushing off to see the evil Beat Crusaders on the Grass Stage. So I am left to chill out with lots of space in the auditorium-like Lake Stage and listen to knob twiddler Rei Harakami while Akiko Yano (who looks like a Japanese Kate Bush) adds some soulful locals on top. This music is mellow, unassuming, intensely soporific, so I drag my sluggish self to the lake again and jump in to wake myself up.
About a minute later after I've swam about 20 meters I hear calls of "Dame! Dame!" from two security guards. They tell me not to swim in the lake. I apologize. They tell me to go and have fun at the festival and are perfectly friendly. I can't imagine such sympathetic staffers at Fuji and certainly not at the Orwellian Summer Sonic.
I wander off to get food. An African stall has ostrich and mozzarella pizzas, and one joint sells the best quiches I've tasted outside of Lorraine, France, but the food highlight is a tiny place in what's called the "Hungry Field," where various eateries can be found among copses of trees. I devour saba (mackerel) hotdogs with homemade curry sauce rather than ketchup on top. I've been rustling them up at my apartment ever since. The recipe is not so secret. Roast the fish. Chop off the head and tail. Remove the bone. Mix up some kind of mild curry sauce and go for it!
The saba hotdog goes down well with the premium beer that Eikichi Yazawa has been downing in commercials this summer while flicking his trademark grin. And here's the legend himself, headlining the final night on the Grass Stage, sporting his perma, drop-dead-cool pout, revving up a motorcycle on stage, and looking resplendent in a white suit. He doesn't ride the bike but it enhances his rock 'n' roll credentials, as do the huge balls of fire that burst out of funnels that line the front of the stage. Cheesy stuff, but it works. (Yazawa, of course, is a king at working a crowd. He was a star in the '70s band Carol, a Beatles-informed outfit who sported rockerlike garb. Guitar Wolf Seiji once told me they are his all-time favorite Japanese band.) The front rows scream in shock but then the smoke harmlessly wafts over their heads and clouds up the clear sky above the stage. Yazawa's next stunt is to strap on a guitar, which he barely plays, and then he does what he's a godlike genius at doing and what everyone loves him for -- being a poser. He strolls about crooning out classic after mid-tempo classic. He's the man you would expect to be singing at the wedding party if a Japanese version of "The Godfather" was ever made. I shamelessly admit that this is the highlight of my festival year so far, although my sidekick doesn't get it and insists we leave early to beat the jam at the station. No way!
The crowd for Yazawa is immense and mirrors a perfect cross-section of fans at Rock In Japan -- students, swooning women in their 30s and middle-aged, quiffed rockers waving nisshoki flags with their hero's name emblazoned across them.
"I would die for him," one of these fanatics tells me. Yazawa commands a rare thing in a fan: loyalty. Expect a similar show of loyalty from the Rock in Japan faithful next year. Grandad included.
Simon Bartz edits a Japanese music Web site at www.badbee.net