Sunday, July 27, 2008

Funk Ecstasy

Fuji Rock 2008: Part 10
The New Mastersounds

Although I’m a great fan of funk, I didn’t know
much about New Mastersounds before Fuji Rock. Somehow they slipped under my groove radar.

But I’m mighty glad I finally caught up with them. Because BOY, was I blown away by these exciting funk geniuses from…Leeds UK!

As they take the stage they are warmly greeted by an expectant crowd and it takes them about two seconds to lay down the slinkiest funk you can imagine. The crowd hardly knows what’s hit them and one minute later everyone is on their feet and tearing it up on the ONE!

NMS bring a whole new freshness to the New Orleans sound, proving that good music is good music, no matter who plays it or where they're from. Guitarist Eddie Roberts underlines this when he observes, “Ah well, Jimi Hendrix had a British band, right?”


Whether it’s from Louisiana or Leeds, it doesn't matter who lays it down. Let's just get it goin' on!

And that's exactly what NMS do for the next hour and a half as they deliver one mind-blowing groove after another.

What a band this is.

Leader Eddie Roberts is one of the best guitar players you’ll ever see. Whether he’s locked into a killer funk rhythm or laying down a tasty solo, the smile on his face tells you he’s in pure funk ecstasy.

Joe Tatton has that classic Hammond sound DOWN, with the occasional tasteful application of echo adding a modern, spacey vibe to his licks.

It goes without saying that you have to be a nuanced, musical drummer to lay down the funk, and Simon Allen is exactly that. He’s fabulous to watch, and when he is locked in with monster bassist Pete Shand - which is all the time - they are , believe you me, RIGHT…ON…THE…MONEY.

There’s plenty of eye contact and joyous smiles passing between the band members. These guys obviously love playing with each other.

During every song, each turnaround and transition is greeted with hysterical whoops of appreciation, and it's easy to see why The New Mastersounds have a strong Japanese following.

Apart from their fabulous music and almost embarrassingly good taste, they are stylish, clean cut, highly professional and coolly retro. They're also an amiable and approachable bunch. Almost the perfect band, really.

I should add that NMS’ astonishing act is no mere homage to the Meters sound. With their roots in DJ culture, they slyly drop elements of acid jazz, hip-hop, dub reggae and trance into the mix, thus maintaining a contemporary edge. But these embellishments are utilized only so far as the limits of good taste will allow, and the band never permit them to dilute their soulful, funky brew.

For their encore, the band plays “the seven-inch version” of their new single, along the way breaking into Sly Stone’s Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). They’ve been grooving for ninety minutes or more, but the crowd could go on all night.

Don't worry if you missed this stunning performance. NMS are bringing their enthusiastic, honest musicianship back to Japan this coming December. If you love tha funk, you don't wanna miss it.

Fujirockers: Interview

Name: Dale
From: Coventry, UK, living in Kyoto.
Why did you come to Fuji Rock? To hear some great music, enjoy a beautiful part of Japan, and go crazy.
Which artists do you especially want to see? Sparks, Underworld, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Tricky, Stephen Malkmus, Spoon, Bootsy Collins, Ritchie Hawtin.
What’s the best thing about Fuji Rock? The music, the friendly, mellow vibe, the excellent organization and the girls!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Me and Paul

Fuji Rock 2008: Part 9

When I was 14 I had a classmate named Paul who was mad about Sparks. He entertained us with non-stop renditions of their early hits - This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, Amateur Hour, Propaganda - and performed hilarious impressions of Sparks' Mael brothers - Ron’s sinister, wild-eyed nerd, Russell’s camp androgyne.

Sparks had exploded onto the British pop scene in 1974, planting themselves in the nation’s consciousness after an era-defining appearance on TV’s Top of the Pops. The next day, everyone at home, at work, at school was talking about Sparks. British fans took the two American misfits to their hearts.

Sparks' aesthetic - an oddball So Cal irony refracted through an Anglophile sensibility - did not play well in their homeland. But they went on to enjoy immense success in the UK and Europe. Their long career has been full of surprises and has seen them flirt with various musical genres, including glam rock, electro and mainstream pop.

Nevertheless, a recognizable Sparks sound has remained throughout, and they have maintained their quirky, operatic presence on the pop scene. Depeche Mode, New Order, Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey have all acknowledged Sparks as a major influence.

Sparks’ performance at Fuji Rock tonight was not simply an affirmation of their status in pop history. In personal terms it was a crystallization of why pop music has meant so much to me since boyhood, and Sparks were the only act at Fuji to make me cry.

The set spans their entire career, from the early twisted glam hits to their electro/Georgio Moroder period and their arch masterpiece L’il Beethoven. Hardcore fans greet their favorite songs like long-lost friends: Strange Animal, This Town, Let the Monkey Drive, Morrissey, Goofing Off , #1 in Heaven and more.

Backed by a superb band, the Mael brothers' quirky charisma is as compelling as ever: Russell, a gracious front man, still the greatest falsetto in rock; Ron - still hammering on that Ronald piano - his usual dryly hilarious self.
The show is simultaneously theatrical and intimate. Parts verge on performance art, including excellent background projections and Ron’s legendary tap-dancing routine.

In one priceless scenario the elder Mael sets fire to a slide display of Sparks albums - at once staking a claim to the band’s formidable influence while at the same time underlining pop’s transitory nature.

The themes which have engaged Sparks for thirty years are as pertinent as ever: ambition, seduction, the tragic secrets of suburbia.

Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth is given a glorious rendition and seems even more apposite - given Fuji Rock’s ecological theme - than it did on its release thirty years ago. The performance of Dick Around hilariously brings its tragic storyline to life.

And their classic Amateur Hour induces feelings of such rapture I don’t know where I’ve ever had such an experience at a pop concert.

My eyes flood with tears and I break down in an ecstasy of joy and nostalgia. The shattering moment passes, like all the defining moments of our lives: our triumphs, our sorrows, our great loves. Or a Sparks song.

And right here, right now, the Mael brothers - the greatest art-pop duo that America has produced - are the conduit for these profound emotions. Recognizing the perfection of this moment, their audience refuses to let them go, and the brothers are visibly moved.

They reaffirm tonight, beyond any doubt, that pop is a majestic, euphoric abstraction which illuminates and elevates our spirits.

Describing our quest for empathy and reality, it has a meaning beyond dreams, which will stay with us after we leave the auditorium and enter the great record booth in the sky.

And it's not just tonight.

It’s all the other nights, all the moments where pop provides definition and context, transports you to a higher plane and becomes something larger than itself. As big as life...and love...and me...and Paul.

VIDEO: Sparks, "My Baby's Taking Me Home"

Sensory Overload

Fuji Rock 2008: Part 8

We’re jammed down the front along with thousands of half-crazed Japanese Underworld fans.

And we can hardly wait for it to go off.

As my conversations with numerous festival goers have confirmed, Underworld are the major draw at Fuji Rock this year. Most of their original fan base have stuck with them, and there are plenty of new converts who, judging by their age, came on board sometime after A Hundred Days Off.

My friend is out of his tree on Red Bull, vodka and absinthe. This doesn’t stop him – a confirmed Mac freak – from itemizing every piece of hardware in Underworld’s rig and reiterating with glee that they are card carrying members of the obsessive-compulsive Apple fraternity. The band frequently collaborate with Apple Quicktime on content for web-based television and the stage is littered with iMacs and Airbooks.

Thankfully I don’t have to listen to any more Apple-babble cos here come England’s techno gods! The much-lamented shortage of mind-expanding substances hasn't diminished the crowd’s enthusiasm, and as Fuji erupts I feel an army of Japanese kids come charging down on me.

Funnily enough, since half of them are gorgeous girls wearing sexy shorts and wellies I don’t mind in the least.

The chords of Crocodile fade in and from there the band cruise into Improv 1 and Parc. It quickly becomes clear that this is gonna be a pretty chilled - for Underworld - show. Karl Hynde looks rather splendid in a gold lame jacket and plays some tasty guitar to boot.

It’s not until the intro of Pearls Girl, followed by King of Snake that they hit anything like top gear. 50,000 party animals let out a collective war cry. This is what they came for – the chance to go bonkers to a soundtrack of squelchy techno genius.

It’s then that some roadies haul out a set of huge inflatable colored tubes which litter the entire stage. As colored lights reflect off them, they make for a bizarre, unforgettable sight. I can't help feeling sorry for the poor guy backstage who has to blow up all them suckers.

And the hits keep on coming. We get Moaner, Two Months Off, Rez/Cowgirl and a few excellent semi-improvised numbers. The set dips into all flavors of electronica, including a mother of a drum and bass track which takes the crowd by surprise and drives them into an absolute frenzy.

Toward the end of a transcendent Born Slippy about 50 huge beach balls are thrown out into the audience and it’s a smorgasbord of sensory overload with the incredible music, superb visuals and a crowd which is almost completely outta control.

So what if it's entirely predictable? You came ta dance, didn't ya?

As a full on populist techno extravaganza, it's hard to see how this could be bettered. Underworld's best recorded music may be behind them, but as long as there are festivals and audiences who wanna rave to state of the art techno, they'll never be short of gainful employment.

Fujirockers: Interview

Name: Iain

From: Devon, UK, living in Kyoto.

Why did you come to Fuji Rock? I came last year to see Muse and The Cure. I'm English. In the UK we like music, especially live music.

Which artists do you especially want to see? Underworld and Asian Dub Foundation. Saiko desu!

What’s the best thing about Fuji Rock? Girls in shorts and wellies!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Rock 'n' Roll Circus

Fuji Rock 2008: Part 7

the rock ‘n’ roll circus a thing of the past?

Nah, course not.

Johnny Rotten said 30 years ago that rock was dead - and his geriatric Sex Pistols are flogging their dead horse yet again at Japan’s Summer Sonic festival. The halcyon days of rock's hothouse creativity may have passed, but filthy lucre is alive and well and as a business concern 'rawk' shows no sign of slowing down.

Japanese rock fans are perhaps the most enthusiastic in the world and there’s a huge crowd present here at the main stage.

We estimate attendance is probably 15% higher than last year and Fuji Rock has now reached critical mass. Compared to 2007 there were far fewer cheapo tix on sale from the Yakuza foot soldiers manning the approaches to the festival.

Kasabian take the stage to a mighty roar and strut stylishly from one rock ‘n’ roll cliché to the next as they play a hugely entertaining set. These boys play their asses off and it’s no surprise they won Best Live Act at last year’s NME Awards.

What we are dealing with here is a seasoned, well-oiled rock machine with just the right blend of heaviness, psychedelia and oodles of confidence.

When lead singer Tom Meighan proclaims, “We’re so fookin’ high, we’re up in space,” a collective sigh of envy goes up among the large foreign contingent, who have, by all accounts had a hard time finding mind-altering substances.

98% of the Japanese crowd probably haven’t a clue what he’s on about, or what he’s on, but yes we get it, or wish we could.

Arms outstretched like the rock god his fans imagine him to be, Meighan is vocally impressive, and his bandmates also have the moves and the grooves - they're tighter than the pair of denim shorts wiggling right in front of me and their backing vocals on Shoot the Runner are outstanding.

My ears prick up at the lyric “Absinthe makes you a whore” because my friend and I will be consuming a flask of it to put us in the mood for Underworld’s set tomorrow night!

Fujirockers: Interview

Name: Richard

From: Shropshire, UK, living in Tokyo.

Why did you come to Fuji Rock? I like festivals, everyone says this one's good, and my friends are here.

Which artists do you especially want to see? Bootsy Collins, New Master Sounds, The Zutons and Primal Scream...because you gotta see 'em!

What’s the best thing about Fuji Rock? The friendly atmosphere. It's not like a British festival. UK festivals are wilder but not so friendly.

Fuji Slide Show #2

Rockin' out!

Fuji Rock 2008: Part 6
The Vines

Remember that gaggle of 'The' bands - The Strokes, The Hives, The White Stripes - who emerged in the late-90s/early noughties?? Well here’s one of ‘em. It’s The Vines, rockin’ out big time in the Red Marquee.

These Aussie boys were hailed in 2002 as the saviors of rock, and the crowd respond enthusiastically to their entertaining, energetic brand of power punk. I have to push my way into the hall, which is crammed with 19-year old Japanese girls who are having the time of their lives.

Being in close proximity to their Aussie idols is almost too much for some of them. And one slightly older English blogger who finds the whole scene pretty electrifying, too.

Fujirockers: Interview

Names: Yoko, Hitomi.

From: Saitama.

Why did you come to Fuji Rock? Because our friends came.

Which artists do you especially want to see? Foreign music.

What’s the best thing about Fuji Rock? Yoko: The nature. Hitomi: Anything.

Drip Rock

Fuji Rock 2008: Part 5
Bloc Party

Unless you've been hiding out in a cave in Pakistan for the past five years, you probably know Bloc Party are one of the biggest bands to come out of England in ages. They’ve sold zillions of records and have just engaged in some highly publicized aggro with Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols.

There are about a thousand fans experiencing Bloc ecstasy in the mosh pit but I have to confess I don’t get it. For me, Bloc Party songs feature grand portentous statements which are uncomfortably palatable and yawn-inducing.

Modest, thoughtful and charismatically-challenged, they end up feeling like another of those stylish mega-rock bands with a M.E.S.S.A.G.E. In that sense their biggest strength turns out to be their biggest weakness. I start to feel guilty for not enjoying their music because I’m quite sure I’d really enjoy their company down the pub.

Thoroughly unimpressed I slink away to track down some dinner, but ten minutes later, as I sit contentedly scarfing my fish and chips I can still hear Bloc Party’s indie-schmindie drip-rock reverberating through the drizzling rain.

Fujirockers: Interview

Names: Pico, Bif, Diga.

From: Newcastle, Australia.

Why did you come to Fuji Rock? We thought it would be cool to do something different and visit Japan for two weeks, and include Fuji Rock.

Which artists do you especially want to see? Underworld, Bloc Party, Primal Scream. And Gotye - they're Australian.

What’s the best thing about Fuji Rock? The beer and the convenience.

Power of Drum

Fuji Rock 2008: Part 4
Drum Circle

My friend and I have adjourned to a fine bar near The Stone Circle. It‘s a kinda hippy-dippy ethnic ragmuffin hangout and suits us just fine. It’s now 4.40PM and I’ve consumed one Red Bull and vodka plus two beers and it feels like things are…uh…starting to…happen.

The drum tent is next door and, as my companion points out, the power of drum is illustrated by the fact that forty people who don’t know what they are doing can produce fantastic rhythms when are being led by two or three folks who know the ropes.

An enthusiastic Japanese lady in red conducts the drum circle with the greatest of skill, and her pick-up orchestra are havin' a ball.

It suddenly occurs to me that I’m seeing my Japanese brothers and sisters in a new light. Their response to their own improvised musical rhythms makes them seem more alive and carefree than I see them in their daily lives - unencumbered by all the worries and strains of Japan’s hyperactive modernity.

Time Warp

Fuji Rock 2008: Part 3
Primal Scream Will Suck

I’m sitting on the grass complaining to my friend that, when I first saw this year’s Fuji Rock line-up, I had the feeling I’d slipped into a time warp. The 2008 Fuji guest list has a distinctly 1990s feel, with Primal Scream, Underworld, My Bloody Valentine all topping the bill.

We're not sure whether this says a lot about the 90s or very little about present day stars. But the billtoppers are bona fide rock icons, and, since we haven’t seen any of them, and since we really wanna see Underworld, it’s probably ok.

Mind you, I predict with come confidence that Primal Scream will suck.

There's a decidedly British theme to this year's festival, since it is celebrating the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the UK and Japan. Union Jack and Rising Sun flags can be seen all over the festival site.

In addition to the three headliners mentioned above, there's a formidable British contingent among the performers; acts such as The Courteeners, Hard-Fi, Tricky, New Master Sounds, Adrian Sherwood and Asian Dub Foundation are present.

Since we bought our tickets from some Yakuza guys at the front gate, we didn’t get copies of the official schedule, which means that much to my chagrin, after being at Fuji for a mere 4 hours, I have already missed two primo non-90s superacts - Jamie Liddell AND Spoon. Grr!

Ah well, that’s the nature of Fuji – the gorgeous site is spread over a huge area and you really have to plan carefully if you wanna see all your fave raves. Not falling asleep after a nine-hour drive helps, too.

Fujirockers: Interview

Name: Nori.

From: Yokohama.

Why did you come to Fuji Rock? I like to drink.

Which artists do you especially want to see? Eastern Youth, their sunglasses are cool.

What’s the best thing about Fuji Rock? Drinking!

Fuji Slideshow "1

Hail to the Chiefs

Fuji Rock 2008: Part 2

The Presidents of the United States of America

Don’t worry, it’s not Dubya or his dastardly dad who are opening Fuji Rock this year. This is a much kinder and gentler group of presidents from not Crawford, Texas, but Seattle, Washington.

I didn’t realize these guys were still around and it turns out they have reformed twice since I last saw them in San Francisco in the mid-90s. I guess you can't keep a good band down.

It must be tough opening a huge event like this, but they Presidents are in good spirits and they soon create a lively, festive vibe at Fuji Rock.

An interesting note for guitar players like me is that the Presidents use a basitar and guitbass, modified, six-string guitars which have two strings (for bass) or three strings (for guitar).

Kewl. Can't really tell from their stage sound, though.

However, I must say I really enjoyed The Presidents' set. Their melodic post-punk provides a perfect opener for the festival - with their laid back, upbeat attitude and invisible harmonica winning over the crowd.

Nice one, guys.

Fujirockers - Interview

Name: Chika

From: Niigata, now lives in Los Angeles.

Why did you come to Fuji Rock? I love music and nature.

Which artists do you especially want to see? Underworld, they are so special.

What’s the best thing about Fuji Rock? The people.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

We made it!

Fuji Rock 2008: Part 1
First Night at Fuji Rock


We made it!

A long drive up from Kyoto – in an eco-friendly biodiesel car - and we arrive at Fuji Rock just in time for the final hour of the first night party. It's great to be back in the gorgeous Naeba Valley.

Almost inevitably there are cute Japanese girls dressed as rabbits cavorting with western guys dressed as rock stars and there's an almost euphoric feeling of anticipation in the air as the DJ spins crowd-pleasing Underworld remixes.

He finishes with John Lennon’s Power to the People, a somewhat baffling choice since at 12.00 sharp the lights come up and marshalls with loudspeakers tell 2,000 raging party animals it's time to go to bed!

But it's probably a good idea to get a decent night's rest. Tomorrow’s when the real fun starts!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Music and the Message

The Curse of J-Pop: Part 2

(These thoughts are in response to Anonymous's comments on my recent J-Pop rant )

First of all, Anonymous, I’d like to thank you for your thoughtful comments. It’s great to see that someone has actually read my rantings and offered feedback. I had a feeling my views on J-Pop might provoke a response.

Before I reply to your points, let me underline the fact that I am not characterizing all Japanese music as inferior. I’m a fan of traditional Japanese musical forms, the modern compositions of Minoru Miki and Toru Takemitsu, an admirer of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Damo Suzuki's work with Can and I have celebrated numerous Japanese styles in this blog.

But let's get back to J-Pop.

In answer to the question ‘What do you expect pop music to deliver?”, I’d have to answer: “Quite a lot.” That’s why I’ve been avidly immersing myself in its wonders for forty-odd years.

You are right that a lot of music has joyful or simplistic themes intended to reach a mass audience, and in itself there’s nothing wrong with that. It may even be true that upbeat fun is characteristic of pop music in general - I’ve enjoyed a good deal of it myself.

But surely there’s so much more to be said within the confines of the form. In my experience the more discerning listener seeks to be uplifted and challenged by something which is more than puppet music.

I’m not saying that the majority of pop in ‘my day’ was uplifting and revolutionary - Britain’s biggest selling pop single of the sixties was Engelbert Humperdincks’s vacuous ‘Release Me’. But when we discuss the immense social impact of 60s pop, Engelbert is hardly the first name that springs to mind.

You then say that "Ultimately pop music has no reason to dish out social commentary."

Frankly, I'm staggered. What, then, is the role of the artist? To look cute and peddle cell phones?

Ok, escapism is certainly part and parcel of the entertainment industry, and if you'd rather pop stars didn't deal with political views, fair enough. Perhaps it's not the duty of all pop music to comment on social ills, but it’s my view that society wouldn’t come very far if artists failed to address the pressing issues of the day.

You can have both the music and the message in a mass mode, as Amy Winehouse, Gnarls Barkley and MIA have recently demonstrated.

The fact remains that even as upbeat, joyful youth music, J-Pop remains exceedingly average, bereft of new ideas and characterized by hollowness and commodification. And what's even more depressing is the fact that it's not a sub-genre or a sideshow on the Japanese music scene. It's the main event.

So when you suggest that pop has no business addressing serious issues in the first place, I couldn’t disagree more. From jazz and blues to Hollywood musicals, from folk to new wave and hip-hop, the greatest popular music - and it’s by it’s best achievements that pop should be judged - has derived its strength, it’s very raison d’etre, from its engagement with the problems of the day, including war, the generation gap and civil rights.

The truly great names in pop music, whether it’s Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Gilberto Gil, Joni Mitchell, James Brown, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, Sex Pistols, Chuck D. or whoever, picked up their instruments in reaction to the apathy and injustices they saw in society.

And perhaps equally importantly, because they had an audience who needed to hear about them.