Home > Entertainment > Music
  print button email button

Friday, Aug. 14, 2009

Summer Sonic: 10 years zoom by


Special to The Japan Times

Japan's biggest urban rock festival, Summer Sonic (SS), held simultaneously in Chiba and Osaka, marked its tenth anniversary last weekend by expanding from two days to three. All three-day tickets for the Chiba end at the Chiba Marine Stadium and Makuhari Messe complex in Chiba were sold out before the weekend, a testament to the organizers' success in booking huge international acts. If Fuji Rock is characterized by its eclectic taste, SS focuses on what grabs your attention.

News photo
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails paints it black at Summer Sonic. SUMMER SONIC 09; ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

In addition to bringing two of the biggest modern rock acts on the planet, My Chemical Romance and Linkin Park, to headline Friday and Saturday nights, respectively, they snagged two of the world's biggest R&B artists, Beyonce and Ne-Yo, to play back-to-back Sunday night and talked Lady Gaga into making her Asian festival debut. Moreover, B'z, the biggest rock act in Japanese pop history in terms of record sales, agreed to play its only live shows of the year at SS. Consequently, one-day tickets for Saturday sold out fast.

Maybe because it was a workday, Friday was sparsely attended, with none of the usual bottlenecks between stages. Things picked up in the evening with the penultimate slot at the main Marine Stage filled by Nine Inch Nails.

An SS headliner in the past, Trent Reznor's long-running industrial rock project may have been relegated to second-tier status by My Chemical Romance's more recent popularity, but NIN was more newsworthy since Reznor announced that this tour may be his last. His show concentrated on older material and was a continuous barrage of punishing noise, made even more amazing by the downpour that started halfway through. The packed masses on the field had nowhere to go, but those of us in the stands made for the top level, which has a roof. From there it was apocalyptic: crashing chords and strobe lighting complemented by genuine lightning bolts flashing in the near distance. Since Reznor didn't remark on the rain, it almost seemed as if he'd arranged it, and the precipitation stopped when the show did — the guy's got connections.

But that was nothing compared to the earthquake during Gogol Bordello's closing show at the Beach Stage on Sunday. Considering how frantically people were dancing, some thought it was a sympathetic geological reaction to all those bouncing bodies.

Is Gogol Bordello the best live act in the world? I've seen them three times in the past year and can't recall anything more exciting in the past decade. There's nothing original about the band. Made up of European immigrants now living in Brooklyn, the band plays "Gypsy punk," and their leader, Ukrainian Eugene Hutz, sings about the immigrant experience in colorful English. The boisterousness of their music connected immediately and people didn't stop dancing until the last note was played.

Something similar happened Saturday night when U.K. ska revivalists The Specials headlined the Mountain Stage. The cavernous hall was filled, and every single person was dancing, unprompted by the veteran group, who seemed genuinely surprised at the reaction and, given their ages, found it exhausting to keep up. Lead singer Terry Hall had to do two songs sitting on the edge of the stage.

Lady Gaga told people to dance, but her concert at the Sonic Stage late Saturday night was so crowded that no one could move. Gaga's act is a mix of girlie show salaciousness and rock-concert bombast. She was accompanied by a film that played up her instant celebrity and underwent several costume changes.

"Hello, my little monsters," she cooed, referring to the young women in outrageous outfits and requisite platinum blond wigs. "We're all beautiful and dirty and rich." It was difficult to feel beautiful or rich, though easy to feel dirty, packed like sardines and stretching your neck just to see the stage. Three songs in, there was an exodus of people who maybe just wanted to say they'd been there.

Trashy white female singers were something of a theme at the festival. Little Boots, a U.K. singer whose back story is similar to Gaga's, plays melodic electro-pop that I often confuse with Gaga's material. The Veronicas, two ruby-lipsticked rock babes from Australia, opened the Marine Stage in fine camp fashion Sunday morning. Katy Perry, famous for kissing girls, canceled because she lost her voice. But really, do people care about her voice? It's all about image.

Take Puffy AmiYumi, who aren't very good singers and are one of the few J-pop acts who have made it big overseas; though it has more to do with their cartoon show rather than with their records. Like true J-pop idols they don't harmonize and during their noontime set Sunday they were often off-key. I could tell because I wasn't in the Island Stage shed, where the sound was undoubtedly deafening, but across the street on the mezzanine level of Marine Stadium listening from the outside walkway with 40 other people.

Security stopped letting people in about 15 minutes before the set because it was too crowded. You can't see anything from the mezzanine, but the sound is clear, and there's more room to dance, which a lot of people around me were doing.

They preferred Puffy's older singles to the post-cartoon material, which tends toward ska punk. Those same people surely hung around Marine Stadium later that day for Unicorn. A product of the early 90s "band boom" that has turned into Japan's equivalent of a "classic rock" era, Unicorn is led by Tamio Okuda, who wrote and produced Puffy's biggest hits. It rained heavily during their set, prompting Okuda to wonder how Beyonce would respond to weather she couldn't control. Someone should introduce her to Trent Reznor.

Rumors of Beyonce's control-freak tendencies are legion, and with musicians arranged in a tableau and choreography planned to the smallest toe tap, her concert is pure production. The music's pounding assertiveness, combined with the singer's brassy delivery and scowling demeanor, suggests a desire to pummel her fans into submission. She commands the audience to dance.

It was the opposite of Ne-Yo's set, which was characterized by a friendly, relaxed attitude and a total focus on the material, which is stellar and no less danceable than Beyonce's.

A more interesting contrast was Beyonce's sister, Solange, who performed earlier that day on the Dance Stage. If Beyonce seems straitjacketed by her need to entertain the hell out of you, Solange is free to be her own eccentric self.

But the ultimate "comment" on Beyonce was made by Naomi Watanabe, a comedian who lip-syncs to Beyonce songs, shaking her considerable girth with alarming violence. She was brought out as a "special guest" Sunday morning, and was on less than a minute. Maybe she was a little paranoid. After all, who knows who was watching?


The best of the rest at the fest

Sexiest performer: Tina Weymouth, 58, of Tom Tom Club and former Talking Head, who can still dance a mean boogaloo.

Best-dressed: Datarock, with their identical red hoodie outfits.

Best-dressed runner-up: CSS's Lovefoxx with her blindingly sequined catsuit.

Most hirsute: Mastodon

Hardest worker: The mashup DJ Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis), who played approximately 5,000 records in 30 minutes, many at the same time.

Most likely to get asked back next year: French guitar band Phoenix, who proclaimed Summer Sonic to be "the best rock festival in the world."

Japanese band with the brightest future: The rock power trio andymori, who played Sunday at 10:30 a.m.



Other Music this week



Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.