Preview: Fuji Rock & Summer Sonic, 2008

Summer rock festivals offer different vibes

With summer music festivals becoming an increasingly popular part of the music calendar around the World, every year sees tough competition to attract the best established acts and to showcase rising talent. As well as competing against each other, Japan's two premier summer music festivals, Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic, also, in a sense, compete against themselves in their attempts to maintain year–on–year quality and to provide line–ups that compare favorably with previous years.

Last year's Fuji Rock, the 11th in the series of annual three–day concerts, had a number of highpoints. Friday saw the Cure's triumphant return to Japan after 23 years, supported by Muse, reputedly rock’s hottest live act. Saturday saw New York legends Iggy and the Stooges and the Beastie Boys, supported by Kaiser Chiefs and Kula Shaker. While for many festival-goers Sunday was the climax, as Tokyo Ska Paradise set up a good vibe, preparing the way for festival favorites The Chemical Brothers to unleash their big beat electro groove. And this was just the Green Stage. The other smaller stages saw performances by Groove Armada, Lily Allen, and Fountains of Wayne, among others.

Compared to this, Fuji 2008 doesn’t quite have the same headline star power, although there may be greater strength in depth. Friday’s Green Stage sees Britpop also–rans Travis, recent NME favorites Bloc Party, and agitprop rockers Kasabian supporting reformed shoegazers My Bloody Valentine in a line–up that seems like a random core sample of 20 years of British rock.

Saturday’s eclectic line–up includes powerful ska–rockers HARD-Fi, Ramone–influenced locals the Cro–Magnons, and alternative rock legends Primal Scream, supporting techno meisters Underworld.

Sunday’s Green Stage line–up seems to have been designed with the U–turn rush from the Naeba ski resort in mind, with a collection of lesser acts, among whom Ben Folds seems to be the biggest name.

The other stages, however, have much to offer, including gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, groove rockers The Music, and throaty chilled–out Madchester icon Ian Brown, among others.

With its setting in the mountains of rural Niigata, Fuji Rock tries hard to capture the hippie/ stoner/ alternative lifestyle ethos of its models, Glastonbury and Woodstock. The several stages are connected by long cross country walks and, of course, there is a large campsite.

Summer Sonic, by contrast, appears much more urban, efficient, and concrete. Coming two weeks after Fuji, it offers convenient music consumerism rather than a real change of pace. Based at venues in Osaka and Chiba – including the soulless Makuhari Messe – it also makes its bands work harder with two line–ups playing Tokyo and Osaka on alternating days.

Last year, the main stage that played Chiba’s Marine Stadium and Osaka’s Maishima Sports Island offered fans a contrast. One line–up was dominated by North American acts and female vocalists – Black Eyed Peas, Avril Lavigne and Gwen Stefani – while the other saw mainly British male rock bands – Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian, and Manic Street Preachers.

This year the main line–ups have a much less easy to define character. On Saturday, August 9, British rock band the Verve, who reformed last year, headline in Chiba, supported by iconic electropunkers the Prodigy, emo band Panic at the Disco, and rap–punk outfit Zebrahead.

The next day sees stadium rockers Coldplay, with a new album in tow, supported by R&B soul singer Alicia Keys, local American pop–punk imitators Radwimp, and the floppy–haired indie rockers the Kooks.

Once again, as with Fuji Rock, Summer Sonic sees plenty of interest in the other stages with Trivium, Super Furry Animals, and the Fratellis, among the highlights. But unlike Fuji Rock, where these stages will be located a picturesque hike away from each other, at Sonic they will be slotted side–by–side into the warehouse–like blocks of Makuhari Messe or clustered close together on a man–made island in Osaka Bay.

It is fitting that one of the bands playing Summer Sonic's so–called Mountain Stage will be the Sex Pistols on their 26–date 'Combine Harvester' summer tour. Since their first incarnation, when singer John Lydon rhetorically asked an audience, "Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?" one of the purposes of the Pistols has been to remind us that popular music is more often a cynical money–making venture rather than a deeply spiritual experience. This is something the band has stressed in the several reunion tours they’ve done since 1996.

By openly admitting that they are just doing it for the money, they have gained kudos. But their mercenary cynicism is also part of a very effective and entertaining act, something that will perhaps be enhanced by their venues – a 'Mountain Stage' in a concrete box and an island made from human refuse, both many miles from any real mountains or islands.

Colin Liddell
International Herald Tribune
26th June, 2008

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