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Friday, Aug. 1, 2008

Finding the edge at Fuji

This year's Fuji Rock Festival was all about the fringe

New finds on the fringes

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Fun alfresco: 119,000 revealers enjoyed the sunshine and music at Fuji Rock '08 in Naeba, Niigata Prefecture. SAKURA KOMPARU

With the lack of really high-profile headliners on the Green Stage this year, Fuji Rock may have turned into more of what the organizer Smash always wanted it to be: a place to discover great music that you'd missed before.

Ashleigh Mannix: The 21-year-old Australian Ashleigh Mannix fitted in perfectly with the laid-back Gypsy Avalon stage vibe. Playing a solo set of songs reminiscent of Ricki Lee Jones (she closed with Jones' "Danny's All-Star Joint"), Mannix casually engaged the audience, punctuating comments such as "May I have a photo? Everybody stand up! This is going to Australia!" with giggles. Her powerful voice and jangly guitar fueled "Sally Jones" from her only EP, getting a crowd up to dance at a stage where everyone is usually comfortably reclined on the grass.

Ino Hidefumi: The owner of the Tenement Cafe in Tokyo's Shiroganedai, Ino Hidefumi wears many hats. On the Field of Heaven stage, he brought his Fender Rhoades electric piano to play jazzy covers of light-rock hits from the 1970s and '80s that he releases under the Innocent Records label he founded. Backed by just drums and bass, Hidefumi updated Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in a minor key, making for one of the most original takes on an oft-remixed song.

The Flying Padovanis: What a long, strange trip Henry Padovani must have had. The Corsican musician was the original guitarist for The Police before being replaced by Andy Summers. His own act, The Flying Padovanis, released two albums of instrumental guitar rock in the 1980s before Padovani took a high-level position at IRS records and later went on to manage Italian rock star Zucchero. He re-formed The Flying Padovanis two years ago, and the band played three sets of blazing surf rock and rockabilly at Gypsy Avalon. With song titles such as "Switchblade" and "Black Widow" you knew you were in for twangy, dark rockers that could be the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino's next feature film.

Asa-Chang and Junray: Tokyo Ska Paradise founder Asa-Chang and tabla-player Junray closed out Gyspy Avalon with a chilled set of electronica, horns and percussion. Sitting on the stage and bathed in colored lights, the two looked as if they could have been sitting in your living room experimenting with a stash of new audio equipment. (Donald Eubank)

Naeba's Primal double take

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Primal Screan's Bobby Gillespie

"Hello Fuji Rock! Do you want to rock 'n' roll?" bellowed Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie. A cheer rose up, but in true rock fashion it was not enough. "I said: Do you want to rock and roll?!"

The roars grew among the sea of people watching the Green Stage, and while Gillespie's words might be a cliche, isn't that exactly why we were here?

Primal Scream's two sets at Fuji Rock this year didn't vary greatly from each other — they played the same songs in a different order, the most popular tracks from their long back catalog. It was the opening beats of "Rocks," though, that turned it into the rock show all had come for on both Saturday and Sunday evenings: the whole audience, from the stage to the trees, belting out the words.

Both nights saw Lovefoxxx from CSS joining them to sing "I Love to Hurt (You Love to be Hurt)." CSS also played to a packed Red Marquee on Sunday, with many fans unable to get in to see them. The thought occurs that instead of double-billing Primal Scream over two nights, the festival organizer could have moved CSS to the Green Stage on Saturday before Underworld. Then Primal Scream could have gotten everybody's rocks off Sunday night to close out the festival. But hindsight is always 20/20 . . . (Jeff Richards)

The art of communication

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The GO! Team mouthpiece Ninja

At international festivals such as Fuji Rock, language doesn't always lead to communication. Some bands do extremely well at connecting with a Japanese audience, while others struggle to be understood. British hip-hop neophytes Dan le Sac Vs. Scroobius Pip resorted to visual aids (periodic tables, bibles, costume changes) to relay their droll pop-culture references, while Bootsy Collins brought out his interpreter for a 10-minute preconcert explanation of the performance to come. My Bloody Valentine made no effort at conversation, letting the feedback do the talking for them. This year's surprise hit, Mexican flamenco duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, attempted to speak Japanese but had much better luck with eye contact and hand claps, learned from years of busking through Europe. Clad in a black nightie that she was constantly falling out of, the Gossip's sultry plus-size front woman Beth Ditto made the most of body language, especially on a punk-rock cover of Madonna's "Like a Virgin." But perhaps the best communicator this year was Ninja, the vocalist for Brighton, England's The Go! Team. Armed with only a handful of expressions and a overly bubbly personality, her objective was simply to get the crowd moving: "Onna no ko wa? (Where are the girls?)," she asked innocently; then "Otoko no ko wa? (Where are the boys?)" The call and response that followed was of a type only seen at Fuji Rock. (Jason Jenkins)

Painting R&B in honest light

The Field of Heaven concerts by Bettye LaVette and Seasick Steve offered better illustrations of careers in American rhythm and blues than did Bootsy Collins' tribute to James Brown, as most R&B careers aren't as successful as Brown's. LaVette was a promising soul singer in the 1960s who never quite made it, while Steve was a sometime blues sideman who spent more time on the road as a hobo than he did onstage. Both finally achieved success after the age of 60, LaVette with a series of fine country-blues albums and Steve as an authentic but wholly original Delta-blues performer. James Brown is dead, but these two veterans seem to have bright futures ahead of them.

LaVette provided a mini-history of her career, with its highlights and lowlights. "This next song I recorded in 1963 and it didn't sell a single copy," she said. "But I like it, I made it, and I'm gonna sing it."

During a digression about how Steve has only lately started making more money than he can spend in a single day, he said, "Maybe I'll be one of those people who are famous when they're dead — or not." Alternating slugs of red wine and Jack Daniel's, it didn't seem to concern him either way. (Philip Brasor)

Soaking up the sweatfest

Fuji Rock is an unforgettable experience for players and punters alike. What other festival is set in a valley with mountains and rivers everywhere you look?

The sport of stream sumo was invented at Fuji Rock this year — by me, as it happens, as a way to withstand the intense heat of Friday and Saturday. There was a minor shower during Kate Nash's set on Friday afternoon, but her straightup honesty was as refreshing as was the rain; and on Sunday there was the annual festival downpour, which lasted for about an hour. Aside from that, the intense bouts of hot sunshine ensured that the 12th Fuji Rock was a sweatfest and the mud level was minimal. (Simon Bartz)


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