Chances are that anyone who regularly makes it out to the valleys of Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, for the annual Fuji Rock Festival will tell you that it’s not for the weather. If there’s one thing every year that punters will cross their fingers and hope for more than quality performances from their favored artists — it’s for clear skies. Or at least just one full day without the rains that have become so run-of-the-mill at Japan’s premier music festival. Now with the event wrapped up, though, if last year’s gathering is remembered as one of the wettest Fuji Rocks since the event’s inception in 1999, then this installment will definitely go down as “the sunny one.”
Actually, the only real rain that festival-goers were made to endure was just after British rock outfit Radiohead closed the Green Stage on the Sunday night — and even that lasted for an almost refreshing 10 minutes, barely enough time for the retreating audience to put on their ponchos before promptly taking them off again. And plus, if it was going to teem down, then after the group’s sublime performance was just the right time.
After a whole weekend of waiting for the five-piece to take the biggest stage at the festival, the waves of expectation and anticipation rippling through the well-over 40,000-strong crowd were palpable. Opening their gig with “Lotus Flower” followed by “Bloom,” the band took the crowd into their own pace by playing a modern setlist centered around songs off their latest albums “The King Of Limbs” and “In Rainbows.” Nonetheless, fans of the band’s back catalogue made their appreciation clearly audible during the opening riffs of “Kid A,” the title track of their fourth album released in 2000, and “The Gloaming” from their 2003 album “Hail To The Thief.”
The famously introverted lead vocalist Thom Yorke hardly spoke during the performance, and all he could muster up was a mumbled dōmo, a simple “thank-you” in Japanese, well into the two-hour set. This hardly took away from any of the magic that was conjured up throughout the show, however, and by the second encore and a spine-tingling version of “Paranoid Android,” the audience knew without question that it was witness to one of the best bands in the world.
Radiohead wasn’t the only British band to swoop on headlining slots over the weekend. In fact, this year’s Fuji Rock was host to the biggest roster of Brit rock powerhouses the festival had ever seen — curious timing considering the opening ceremony of the London Olympics the very same weekend. Taking the spotlight on the Green Stage at the end of the first day were Madchester legends The Stone Roses.
While some of the capacity crowd were maybe expecting an arguably fitting “I Am The Resurrection” to kick things off, and indeed many others in the throng may have been a decade or so too young to fully appreciate the band’s second coming now after 15 years apart, the Roses instead launched with “I Wanna Be Adored.” After swaggering their way through a solid set, the group won over the audience with superb renditions of favorites such as “Fool’s Gold” and “Waterfall,” before ending with “I Am The Resurrection.”Although the sheer level of electricity in the air could not compare to the Sunday headliners, the group undeniably proved to the audience that they still have what it takes to put on a great show.
Brit rock weekend in Naeba was not without it’s share of drama, however. Perhaps the most infamous brothers in British music today, the Gallaghers, faced massive public and media attention in the runup to the festival as both Liam and Noel were slated to play with their respective newly formed bands Beady Eye and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. One wonders how Liam may have felt when he heard that his crew was only going to fill the warmup slot for The Stone Roses on Friday, while his brother headlined Saturday’s program.
While Noel didn’t betray any sign of the ongoing feud, baby bro Liam couldn’t quite help himself as he dedicated the only two Oasis songs in their set to his older sibling with a sarcastic, “The one and only Mr. Noel Gallagher” when introducing “Rock N Roll Star,” and opening “(What’s The Story?) Morning Glory” with a snide, “This one is for The High Flying Smurfs.” Unfortunately, it was this open display of bad blood that hurt their performance, as Liam’s defiant attitude throughout created an uneasy vibe that lingered in the audience — evidenced by a distinct lack of applause from start to finish — until they closed with “Sons Of The Stage” from their 2011 debut album “Different Gear, Still Speeding” to polite claps and no demands for an encore.
Perhaps unsurprising to many, The High Flying Birds went down much better with the congregation in Naeba. Oozing with the rough-around-the-edges charisma that he is so well known for, Noel swept the crowd off its feet with just the right balance of his new band’s repertoire, Oasis tunes and a generous helping of playful banter with audience members — the most memorable of which was when Noel echoed one fervent lady fan’s repeated calls of “Will you marry me?!” — adding: “I can’t, I’m already married. Alright, tell you what, you can be my second wife.”
After opening strongly with two Oasis songs “(It’s Good) To Be Free” from the 1994 “Whatever” single, and “Mucky Fingers” released in 2005, the band really got into gear and played “Everybody’s On The Run,” the first track off of their self-titled album. The group made its way through a 16-song performance before being coaxed back on stage by an enthusiastic crowd to an encore lasting four songs and finishing off with a resounding sing-along session in the form of another Oasis hit “Don’t Look Back In Anger.” An apposite end to a triumphant performance, and the close of yet another chapter in the brothers’ ongoing battle of words.
Fuji Rock wasn’t all about the headliners, though. Saturday saw Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 take on the Green Stage under the pounding midday sun. The Kuti clan’s intensity carried over to the audience, who stomped and sweated their way through the mammoth two-hour set. Later on in the day, yet another British act, The Specials, did a perfect job of warming up for Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, easily charming the huge turnout right from the opening “Do The Dog” to their unofficial theme song “Enjoy Yourself,” and finishing off with the made-to-order closer “You’re Wondering Now.” Crowd-winning stuff.
Which brings us to the Sunday sessions. Galactic started off the final day with a determined groove as lead singer Corey Glover injected a healthy dose of soul into the day’s proceedings. After Yosui Inoue finished up a well-received best-of session, Jack White played the late-afternoon slot, followed by the illustrious Elvis Costello and his band The Imposters. As Costello took the stage after a sexy yet captivating gig by White and his all-female backing band The Peacocks, one couldn’t help but think that if White and Costellos’ gigs (late afternoon and early evening respectively) were switched in terms of timing, then perhaps both shows would have been received better by the crowd.
Special mention must also go to playful Argentinian band Onda Vaga, who were “officially” scheduled to play six times over the festival period, including Thursday’s prefestival party, but ended up throwing in a few more shows that included an impromptu walking performance in the camp site before the Thursday festivities even began. Anyone who remembers back to 2009 when Swedish punks Rafven utterly destroyed the festival with multiple shows will understand that this is one group whose heart-winning antics were not to be missed.
Japanese bands made a strong showing with powerful performances by The Back Horn, who were given the intimidating job of opening the Green Stage on the Friday under clear skies, while mouse on the keys and their highly intricate and infectious brand of free-jazz and postrock took to the Orange Court where enthusiastic fans grooved in the searing heat right until the last note.
Saturday saw Special Others open the Green Stage, while Mono played the mid-afternoon slot on the White Stage, supported by The Holy Ground Orchestra. As the group took their places on the sprawling stage, dressed in their customary black-on-black, the band gently lifted off with an atmospheric piece that did not yet incorporate the full ensemble, before launching into a passionate sonic journey spearheaded by lead guitarist and composer Takaakira Goto that lasted for almost an hour. During our interview later on in the day, Goto mentioned that he wished he could have played for half an hour more — a sentiment this writer was more than inclined to agree with.
mouse on the keys’ fellow labelmates toe took to the Green Stage on the final day for a brief 50 minutes, but the setlist was solid and the group strummed and beat like there was no tomorrow. A fine end to the weekend’s lineup of J-rock’s golden children.
Although the festival has built its reputation on having the most extensive and eclectic lineup of rock music from across the globe, fans of electronic music have been slowly increasing, with headlining sets from Underworld and The Chemical Brothers in recent years. This year, Canadian duo Purity Ring played their Japanese debut at the Red Marquee on Friday afternoon, with the bad luck of being scheduled at the same time as the formidable Kutis. If their set had been scheduled for after sunset, and the wind wasn’t so wild, then perhaps lead singer Megan James’ voice would have had more of a chance to wrap itself around the audience.
Friday evening saw London-based critical darling James Blake take the headliner spot at the White Stage, as well as string together an altogether more bass-heavy set geared toward the dancefloor in the Red Marquee later that night. In our chat earlier on in the day, Blake said that he strongly prefers playing after the sun has gone down — with both sets after dark, he was certainly in his element.
A disappointing dub-reggae set from Vladislav Delay followed Blake’s second gig, but he was penciled in at the last-minute to cover for AraabMuzik who said via Twitter that he couldn’t make it to the festival on the day due to a major storm in New York. Luckily, for the fans who decided to stay up all night, Swedish techno pioneer Axel Willner, aka The Field, stepped up to the plate and killed the floor when he was joined by an electric bassist and drummer.
Ultimately, regardless of whether music fans made it to Naeba for the British Rock extravaganza, the Japanese program or the unknowns, one thing is certain — that none of us had ever seen, or ever expected, the Green Stage to be so green instead of a muddy brown after a long weekend of rocking out — without rain.