Sets by Radiohead, Liam and Noel Gallagher and The Stone Roses crowned this year’s 16th Fuji Rock Festival. With nary a drop of rain in sight and a record 140,000-strong attendance, the festival was the most fun in a long time.
Asia’s premier music event, Fuji Rock attracts a growing number of tourists from around the region. After a noticeable drop-off in the wake of 3/11, international attendees were back this year, with visitors arriving from Singapore, Hong Kong, China and other parts of Asia.
Parents with kids in tow were also in abundance, fulfilling founder Masa Hidaka of promoter Smash’s ambition of creating a festival with multigenerational appeal.
With Western rock’s place in the Japanese music market static or shrinking, the need to cultivate a new generation of international music fans is critical. Fuji Rock 2012 provided indelible memories that will keep them coming back.
With The Stones Roses, Gallagher brothers and Radiohead topping the bill, audiences could reasonably have expected to hear iconic Britpop tunes of the ’90s and ’00s. In the end only The Stone Roses, who hadn’t issued a new album in decades, deigned to dish up the old classics. Still, it was Radiohead that filled their headlining Green Stage slot with the most aplomb. Ending the festival Sunday night, Thom Yorke and co. showed why they remain one of the most fascinating bands in the business, filling the giant valley with washes of guitars, percussion and electronics in a two-hour set culled mostly from King of Limbs and Kid A, with a final nod to the crowd in the form of “Paranoid Android.”
Best Heritage Performance
Toots and the Maytals
At 67 Toots Hibbert wasn’t the oldest at Fuji Rock—Buddy Guy is 76—nor was he the only singer laying down the hit parade. But as his MC said in introducing him, Toots remains one of the hardest working men in the business. With a decent claim to inventing the word “reggae,” Toots didn’t disappoint, serving up hit after hit in successive sets Friday night and Saturday afternoon. “Pressure Drop,” “Funky Kingston,” “54-46 That’s My Number”—they kept on coming and coming. With a record 31 number-one hits in Jamaica, Toots was just getting started.
You knew it was going to be an intense and emotional set from singer-songwriter Yael Naim when she nearly burst into tears after her very first number. The multi-instrumentalist played mainly piano and guitar while showcasing her powerful voice with tracks that ranged from jazz to R&B, soft rock to ballads and a touch of blues. The French-Israeli singer’s chops evidenced delicate harmonies as well as gutsy wails while also orchestrating sing-alongs from the crowd. An awesome version of Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” a soulful cover of Britney Spear’s “Toxic” (!) and Naim’s own “Come Home” highlighted the set.
Best Electronica Act
Dan Snaith has a PhD in mathematics, but that doesn’t stop him from putting on one of the most un-cerebral, booty-shaking live electronica sets on the planet. Snaith led his white-clad Canadian quartet through a tour-de-force of minimal techno, deep house and 21st century soul, re-contextualized in the setting of a live rock band. The audience devoured a set of songs mostly from Snaith’s latest outing Swim, including the joyously goofy white-boy funk outing “Odessa.”
Gypsyphonic Disko aka Ben Ellman from Galactic
Pioneering Japanese turntablists Krush and Kentaro dealt out worthy sets of downtempo and breakbeats, but it was sax player Ben Ellman from New Orleans’ Galactic (aka “DJ Natto”) that played the most unusual hand of DJ cards. Gypsyphonic turns out to be a febrile blend of Balkan music cut up with New Orleans funk and hip-hop. Slightly bizarre, but somehow it all worked magically.
Best insane energy
Who plays at FRF six times covering every stage except the two main ones? Argentine campfire close-harmony boy band Onda Vaga, that’s who. On their first visit to Japan, to give love to a burgeoning fan base that bought up all the first run of their special release album Moshi Moshi Best Album For Japan, the charming collective ran riot at the fest. Pretty much every Fuji Rocker will have seen them at least once, and the guys were happy to jump in the crowd and stay up all night drinking with the ordinary folk too. Where did they get the time?
Best Cover Set
It isn’t easy to get invited back to Fuji Rock year after year, but a few of the smaller bands booked for stages like the Naeba Shokudo earn passes in novel ways. Toronto alt-country act the Kensington Hillbillys’ got their invite by putting together a slick set of Clash covers in honor of Joe Strummer—the festival’s patron saint. In the best spirit of covers, they didn’t play “London Calling” note for note, but instead, with a country twang and pedal steel guitar, made it their own.
With a set that screamed Friday night at the white stage, Kentaro was happy to give the bouncing crowd everything they came for. He rattled through genres from house to breakbeat, drum ’n’ bass to dubstep, allowing none of them to become monotonous before whipping you off in a different direction. The lights and lasers alternated with huge screenfuls of his hands moving virtuosically across the decks, leaving no-one complaining about the number of showman scratches he dealt out.
Not that Jack White’s music wasn’t cuttingly brilliant, but for sheer visual appeal—cf. the Detroit rocker’s powder-blue suit and the matching blue frocks of the accompanying all-woman band—his set was the festival’s most arresting. White mainly presented material off his new solo outing Blunderbuss, sprinkled with earlier White Stripes songs. It sounded bluesy and burning—but looked sensational.
Best act of random (coordinated) violence
Bir Khalsa Dal
The Crystal Palace right outside the gate is usually for drunken souls unlikely to recall the debauchery of events they witness. In this playground of Mutant Wastoids a few too many whiskies might have loosened up your senses, but didn’t those Sikh guys just smash two concrete blocks into the head of another? While he was lying on glass? That was Bir Khalsa Dal performing martial art Gatka, and along with slamming sledgehammers between each other’s noggins and stabbing each other with swords, Fuji offered nothing more violent and downright unmissable.
There were the clowns, the dude in the gold body suit and the inevitable fundoshi loincloth, but it was the guy made up as Mt Fuji that took first place for best costume. When uninformed artists ask which way to the mountain (it’s 100 kilometers distant), there’s finally a proper Fuji-san close at hand to point them to.
Best Fest Feasts
Food stalls comprise a substantial amount of fun for gourmet Fujirockers. Charcoal grilled pork-belly skewer, pork miso soup, and tororo (grated yam) over rice and handmade pickles from Naeba Shokudo—the latter ranked “second-best food stall” last year—are guaranteed to stay in the minds of everyone who queued. Sasazuka Bowl’s quick sellout on their signature burgers was a huge disappointment but their hearty vegetable soup was worth multiple visits.
The Hammock Area, off the narrow green path that connects Gypsy Avalon and Field of Heaven was the one of the best place to chill while hearing the live music playing at both stages from a distance. Rocking on a wide cotton Brazilian hammock by Hammock 2000 (www.hammock2000.jp) as I took a deep nap was the one of the best favors I did for my restless mind and body during my three-day camp at Fuji Rock. Thank goodness for the beautiful weather with hardly any rain!
Best Overheard Conversation
“This reminds me of Glastonbury.”
“Yeah. Except the people are more polite and no one’s doing drugs.”
FRF ’12 coverage continues in upcoming issues with interviews with Afrobeat scion Seun Kuti and New York rockers My Best Fiend.