Review: Fuji Rock Festival 2018

Naeba Ski Resort, Japan, July 27-29, 2018

The Japanese invented Instant noodles, square watermelons and the Nintendo 64, but those things are nothing compared to their ultimate creation: Fuji Rock Festival. It’s a festival utopia… a festival that isn’t a fashion parade or about getting the most Instagram likes… just people listening to great music in stunning surroundings.

Nestled amongst the forests, creeks and mountains of Naeba ski resort in Niigata Prefecture (no snow as it’s the middle of Summer—speaking of which,  we were in Japan during their hottest day ever and nearly melted), this year’s festival had a hip-hop flavour with N*E*R*D, Kendrick Lamar and Post Malone on the line-up.

The big attraction though was Bob Dylan, performing his 101st show (!!!) in Japan. You’d think after that many concerts the Japanese would know how bad he is live and stay away in droves, but more about Bob and his crap live show later.

My wife and I had planned a trip around the festival and after a couple of weeks in Hong Kong and Tokyo we set off on the bullet train on Friday morning to arrive in time to see Years & Years take to the main Green Stage. At every festival there’s a band that exceeds your expectations and at Fuji Rock it was Years & Years. Singer Olly Alexander is a captivating frontman with a voice that hints at Justin Timberlake and eighties Michael Jackson. Their synthy dance pop songs are ludicrously catchy—the type you feel like you’ve known forever even when you’re hearing them for the first time.

Next up is Mac DeMarco. An Australian festival favourite, I’ve been out of the loop so I’m keen to catch-up and see what he’s all about. Every westerner at Fuji Rock seems to be in the Red Marquee as he emerges to the Star Wars opening theme. DeMarco’s live schtick is hard to describe… I guess you could call it manic slacker-dude playing dad-rock-meets-jangle-pop (he jokingly calls it “jizz jazz”). The super chill ‘Salad Days’ and ‘On the Level’ are highlights, but the most memorable song is the last one: a cover of sixties Japanese pop song ‘Sukiyaki’ (the only Japanese song to top the US charts), complete with cameo from a maraca-shaking, beer-swigging, cigarette-smoking Post Malone.

The first headliner of the festival is N*E*R*D, fronted by the seemingly ageless Pharrell Williams. Poor Pharrell is fighting a losing battle with his voice from the get go, and big parts of the set felt more like a live mix-tape of songs he’s produced and collaborated on over the years (the likes of ‘Drop it Like it’s Hot’, ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Blurred Lines’), but they keep the energy levels high to close out the Green Stage.

Last for us on Day 1 is Post Malone, performing on the White Stage with just a DJ for company. ‘Better Now’ comes early in the set and gets a huge reaction, but with little else happening on stage the show largely rises and falls on Malone’s interactions with the crowd. A ‘shoey’ out of a random punter’s shoe gets a mixed response—applause from the Australians in the crowd, total confusion from nearly everyone else. Later, before ‘I Fall Apart’, a song about his ex, he gets the crowd to chant “fuck that bitch”, which just feels awkward in 2018. Malone isn’t a brilliant live performer, but he’s not a terrible one either and I’m fascinated by a bloke that gets ‘always tired’ tattooed on his face

Day 2 began with ex-Smiths guitarist, Johnny Marr. Now that Morrissey has become a massive racist, Marr has become the de facto ‘good one’ from the Smiths. He has an early afternoon slot on the White Stage and plays a set of mostly solo songs before finishing with the Smiths’ ‘How Soon is Now?’ and ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’. Ia big Smiths fanthought it was great. My wifewho absolutely hates the Smithsthought it was boring. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all Johnny. I thought you were great.

I wanted to see Superorganism but one look at an overflowing Red Marquee and I knew it wasn’t going to happen, so instead we headed to the Green Stage to see Japanese band “マキシマム ザ ホルモン”(the program and video screens didn’t have an English translation so we had no idea who we were about to see). They turned out to be Japanese nu-metal / metalcore band, Maximum the Hormone. Not the type of thing I’d usually listen to, but it was actually heaps of fun and perfect for the mid-arvo slot. No idea what they were saying, but it was cool with the female drummer’s sunny pop vocals contrasting with the more hardcore-punk style of the two main vocalists.

Dubstep isn’t my thing either, but with half an hour to kill we waited around to see Skrillex. There was so much light and sound emanating out from the stage that it looked and sounded like a UFO crash-landing in the Naeba forest. I’d stop short of saying it was “good”, but it was impressive. Having said that (and I know I’m getting a bit “old man pointing at cloud” here…) how much of it was pre-programmed by a computer vs him actually doing anything? No idea, but it kept me entertained until it was time to go and see MGMT.

As much as I love them (Oracular Spectacular might be the album of the 2000s), MGMT don’t have a reputation for being very good live. With their very first song interrupted by screeching feedback and confused pauses, I start to think the reputation might be justified. But thankfully they get it together in time for a triumphant ‘Time to Pretend’, during which they actually did a good impersonation of a decent live band. All in all, after a shaky start, they were pretty good, although it was interesting to see the Japanese fans seemed far more excited to hear ‘Little Dark Ages’ than by ‘Electric Feel’ which gets gets hardly recognition. But anyway at this point I am also grateful to be undercover in the Red Marquee as a typhoon (seriously…) hits the festival.

Back on the Green Stage, I expected Day 2’s headliner Kendrick Lamar to be the standout performance of the festival, but in the end he was just… pretty good? Lamar is a blisteringly intense live rapper, and the dancers, pyrotechnics and kung-fu interludes are cool, but it’s just a smidgen too slick and too choreographed. It didn’t help we seemed to be standing in a spot where the sound seemed to ear-splittingly distort at times, so I should probably reserve judgement until next time. ‘King Kunta’ was epic though, and I am still furious that Rubens song beat it to #1 in the Hottest 100.

The passing typhoon had moved out to sea by Day 3, leaving behind just a few showers as we arrived to see Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals on the Green Stage. I’d been told by a few people that Paak is a ‘must see’, and they are absolutely right. Paak is a super-talented and charismatic performer who spends half the set singing from behind the drum-kit and the other half with a microphone in hand, fusing together hip-hop, funk, soul sounds. Playing mostly songs from latest album Malibu, it’s one of the stand-out performers of the weekend. Nevermind Kendrick, Anderson Paak is where it’s at.

Paak makes way for the next Green Stage act, Jack Johnson. Ten years ago I haaaaated Jack Johnson. Boring music for boring people I said, and even had this INSANE rule that I wouldn’t date anyone who likes him (no idea why I was single for so long hey?). The irony being my wife loves him. Anyway I have to admit he’s crept into the odd Sunday morning Spotify playlist in our household and seeing him live at Fuji Rock I finally ‘get’ him—it’s pleasant music to sit down on the grass and chill out to. And sometimes that’s what you want from music.

And now we come to the Day 3 headliner, Bob Dylan. I saw Dylan back in 2007 and he was terrible. He’s still terrible. His voice departed him sometime during the Reagan administration, leaving behind a raspy spoken-word mumble in its place. Granted, he sounds slightly better than last time I saw him, but only in the same way it’s ‘slightly better’ to be punched in the face once instead of twice. During the 90-minute set he says nothing, and doesn’t touch the guitar once. Instead, he alternates between sitting and standing behind the piano, tinkering away to barely decipherable versions of his songs, many of them re-arranged beyond recognition. It is not a good sign when it takes half the song to even realise he’s playing ‘Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright’ or ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’. No one expects crystal-clear vocals or Springsteen-like energy from a 77-year old Dylan, but some vague acknowledgement people are paying money to see him would be nice. He might be a legend, but this is just a sad waste of time. 

I need something to wake me up from the Dylan-coma, and Vampire Weekend are just what the doctor ordered. They walk on stage to AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’, immediately blowing away the Dylan cobwebs. The New York indie-rockers sound like Paul Simon’s Graceland with better guitar as they run through a hit-friendly taking in their biggest songs to date. Indie anthem ‘A-Punk’ is an obvious highlight, as too is a cameo from Danielle from Haim who joins for the last two songs, one of them a cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Boys are Back in Town’.  It’s unpolished and a bit rusty, but it’s a fun end to an enjoyable set as we rush off to catch CHRVCHES who are about to start on the White Stage.

The Scottish synth-pop group are the last act out on our Fuji Rock itinerary (The festival goes until 5AM each night but who the hell stays up until then? Not me, even if it means missing Sunday morning’s Avalanches DJ set), and have much of the Vampire Weekend crowd trying to squeeze in to see them. I’ve wanted to see CHRVCHES ever since their first album in 2014 so it’s good to finally see them. Two things stand out: one, Lauren Mayberry is very, very short,  and two, her voice is absolutely flawless. Every song sounds like an exact facsimile of the recorded versions. CHVRCHES sure know how to write a perfect pop song, and their catchy brand of synth-pop on songs like ‘Get Out’, ‘Gun’ and ‘Recover’ is the perfect way to end the weekend.

The next day we’re off to Osaka for the last few days of our Japan trip, taking with us memories of the best festival ever. The music was great, obviously (Years & Years and Anderson Paak were the standouts), but it was the atmosphere that made it—super relaxed with well-mannered festival-goers. It’s telling that the only annoying people in the crowd were westerners who had brought their shitty manners with them to Japan. It’s going to be hard to go to an Australian music festival ever again…

Fuji Rock Best & Worst

Best Act: Years & Years, Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals
Worst Act: Bob Dylan
Best Song: MGMT – Time to Pretend
Worst Song: Anything Bob Dylan performed
Best Cover: Mac DeMarco feat. Post Malone – Sukiyaki
Coolest Cameo: Danielle Haim with Vampire Weekend

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