Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Fuji Rock 2009
Oasis (Rock)

So we drove nine hours for this.

To stand in the middle of a field getting soaked to our y-fronts. And all for a bunch of scallies from Manchester.

Oasis are headlining Fuji tonight as part of an ultramassive world tour which underlines their recent renewed success.

A huge - and I mean HUGE - roar erupts from the crowd...and here come the saviors of rock 'n' roll.

Yep, it's Noel, Liam and, er, the other guys.

The logistics of what it took to get the band here tonight are mind-boggling. How much technology must it take - airplanes, freight, generators and the rest of it - to plonk Oasis on a stage in the middle of a Japanese alpine valley?

But it seems the most natural thing in the world when their faces - familiar from a thousand TV shows and magazines - appear from the wings.

The place goes absolutely mental.

If last year Underworld received a thunderous reception from the Fuji hordes, the welcome given Oasis is absolutely deafening. The atmosphere is electric and there's a mad rush as 50,000 Japanese fans head pell-mell toward the stage.

Ouch! Look out, wontcha!?

Anyroad Noel looks pretty cool in a leather bomber jacket even though temperatures are well into the 30s. Liam's wearing one of those long green raincoat thingies from his much-ridiculed (by Noel) fashion collection.

He's gonna need it if the weather keeps on like this.

They start with Fuckin' in the Bushes, then Rock 'n' Roll Star and Lyla. It's a familiar but effective set of no-frills Oasis rock 'n' roll. Sure it's predictable, but loud and in person ya gotta admit it's quite a show.

The innate conservatism of Oasis which has always turned me off is the main reason for their success.

Their obsession with The Beatles, Stooges and Stone Roses - as well as the occasional plagiarized riff or lyric - has enabled them to sound like a classic rock band without ever actually becoming one, that rollicking first album aside.

I may not be Oasis' number one fan, but they've won me over - or worn me down - over the years. Noel has proven himself to be a genuinely amusing social commentator and his melodic gifts have turned his band into a national institution.

But glancing at my friend I notice a cavernous yawn spreading over his face. We're in a bemused minority of two among 50,000 believers. He gestures for us to leave and we head to catch the end of System 7.

When we stagger past the main stage one hour later, Oasis are still going strong. We catch the dying strains of Champagne Supernova and a cracking version of I Am The Walrus which trumps the recorded version.

Liam thanks the crowd for enduring the torrential rain - "Nice one for stickin' around in this" - but delivered in a Mancunian drawl his appreciation goes completely over the heads of his adoring Japanese fans.

Good night, Fuji Rock.

Freak Scene

Fuji Rock 2009
Dinosaur Jr (Rock)

Is it really twenty-odd years since I used to drive out to Isla Vista, California to pick up the latest Dinosaur Jr releases? Since I first saw them live when they played the tiny pizza parlor next to Morninglory Records?

Twenty years since I was working construction and rocking out to Husker Du, Soul Asylum, Big Black and other avatars of the pre-grunge scene?

It is, you know. And before Fuji Rock, I'd almost forgotten how heavily I was into hardcore in those days.

As I drove around in my beat-up Ford Granada, Dinosaur Jr's early classics - Little Fury Things, The Lung, Tarpit, Freak Scene - kept me rocking through Cali.

The band were a fantastic, unlikely combination of Crazy Horse, Black Sabbath and The Replacements and they invented a new musical genre: ear-bleeding country music. Totally revamping the power-trio format, the band introduced unusual song structures, melody and extreme volume and distortion.

On the negative side they did come up with that irritating LOUD quiet LOUD technique which was done to death by every grunge groaner, from Pixies to Nirvana.

But Dinosaur Jr did it best.

J. Mascis' detached drawl communicated a bemused savant aesthetic and was an antidote to the tiresome post-punk scream.

Though his distorted, melodic guitar playing had its roots in classic rock and country it also communicated a literate punk fury. The crucial ingredient was that Mascis was a superlative player, a guitar hero for post-punks like me.

After an ugly breakup and years of separation the original band have returned - and how! - with two superb albums in Beyond (2007) and Farm (2009). Artistically - every which way, in fact - this has got to be one of the most successful comebacks in rock history.

So here they are at Fuji Rock's Red Marquee and it's a gas to see my old heroes unleashing a familiar aural assault upon thousands of unsuspecting Japanese kids. All of the classics are there - Let it Ride, Just like Heaven (best Cure cover, bar none), and most ecstatically, Repulsion - and the place is going mad.

Rose-tinted nostalgia it ain't. As ten thousand Japanese kids will tell ya, this is fresh, vital and totally cool. What they got here is a whole new ear-splitting FREAK SCENE going on.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Instrument of War

Fuji Rock 2009
Patti Smith (Rock)

Bob Dylan says the true artist is always in the process of becoming, and that's the case with Patti Smith. In 1977 she was a raw performance artist who channelled bohemian feminism and rock lore to emerge with a blend of quasi-religious street poetry and punk rock.

Since then she has continued to produce inspiring music in the face of considerable personal challenges. Now aged 62, looking wise and embattled, she's better than ever.

Patti brings Fuji Rock a powerful message of empowerment, eco-awareness and political action. I think many Japanese women who were not aware of Patti will have been inspired by her energy and call to action.

She takes to the stage smiling and waving at the crowd, raising everyone's spirits in the face of insufferable weather conditions. It's been pouring continuously since the night before but here's Patti to rain love on us all - her humanity and empathy weave a magical spell over a damp but enthusiastic crowd.

The performance starts with Dancing Barefoot, a personal favorite of mine. It's one of many highlights in a dynamic, spiritual performance alongside classics like Because the Night, People Have the Power and others. Today is Haile Selassie's birthday, so Ghost Dance is dedicated to him. Then an amazing Rock 'n' Roll Nigger is dedicated to Michael Jackson.

Patti's band is superb, featuring long-time mainstay Lenny Kaye on guitar and the excellent Tony Shannahan on bass and keyboards. They spur Patti on as she urges the crowd to political and personal action, crying, "The electric guitar is the only instrument of war we need!"

For a moment, even I believe it.

We briefly run into Patti at the after-show interview booth, where she is charming and amiable and still calling for her fans to challenge their governments and systems of power - a pretty tall order in Japan. Nevertheless there she is hollering, "We are alone and we are free! The people have the power!"

Patti Smith "Dream of Life" Movie Trailer

21st Century Pop

Fuji Rock 2009
M83 (Electro-pop)

What's that incredible sound coming from the Red Marquee?

It's French band M83 - named after a distant galaxy - and I'm glad I finally caught up with them because I've been a fan of these electro-shoegazers for years.

M83's sublime electro-pop is an uplifting and inspiring start to this year's Fuji Rock festival and each song takes me - and about ten thousand other Fujirockers - higher and higher.

There's an intriguing blend of ambient, dance and experimental sounds in evidence, but M83 have recently veered away from their earlier psychedelic sound to head in a poppier direction.

Their version of Don't Save Us from the Flames is rousing. It sounds like pop for the twenty-first century.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Shirokuma Company (Beatles tribute band)
The Cavern Club

I wouldn't mind betting that Japan has more Beatle tribute bands than any other country. The Japanese love the Fab Four and, with their incredible eye for detail, nihonjin Beatle bands are usually note-perfect.

One of the best is Kyoto's Beatrips, who wowed the crowds at Liverpool's Beatles festival two years ago. I've seen those guys three times and they are fab.

But I'm in Tokyo now at Roppongi's Cavern Club where I catch the superb Shirokuma Company in action.

It's a pleasant venue which thankfully doesn't look anything like the real Cavern. There's an impressive collection of Fab Four photos on display, most of which I have never seen before.

If I understand their Japanese flyer correctly, Shirokuma Company is a collective of 15 musicians with a revolving door policy regarding who plays on any given night. It's an interesting approach which I guess keeps things fresh for the players.

What I like about Shirokuma Company is that, even though they are wearing the standard Beatle suits, they're also a tad unkempt and rough looking. They're also sporting Beatle boots with Cuban heels. Gear.

The first song I hear - this is their third set of the night - is Lovely Rita. They don't quite get the coda right - one of the Fabs' most deliriously spaced out musical endings - but their version of Something is astonishing.

It's fine - and to my ears a strength - that they don't worry too much about getting each song note perfect. After all, if this was the real Beatles they wouldn't sound exactly like the records either.

Mind you, next comes Across the Universe - one of my least favorite Lennon songs - and it's just as soporific and weedy as the original. Can't blame them for that, though, they didn't write it.

But then they let loose a rip-roaring blitzkreig of I Saw Her Standing There. It's one of the best versions I've ever heard.

Shirokuma Company are a great band with a loose, rocky feel. I wouldn't mind seeing them play their own material or some other rock standards, and I'd certainly get back to check 'em out if I were on their patch again. Much recommended.


Karen Aoki and The Club Jazz Allstars (Jazz)
Billboard Club

Tonight is my first exposure to live Japanese jazz and I'm wondering what's in store. Some of the essential elements of jazz - improvisation, spontaneity, letting your hair down - seem a tad antithetical to the Japanese national character. Therefore I'm anticipating an entertaining though somewhat polite evening of jazz.

Karen Aoki is a Japanese jazz diva with an intercultural background, having grown up in Hong Kong and Detroit. She and her band start their set with the Billie Holiday/Cole Porter standard
Love For Sale and they give it an ethereal, otherworldly flavor. The musicians - piano, bass, drums, trumpet and sax - rip through it with aplomb.

A predictable but enjoyable version of
It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got That Swing) comes next. It's followed by an interminable speech by Aoki which immediately destroys any sense of continuity or tension the set has built up. This by the way is a regular feature of Japanese live acts

The next song choice is truly bizarre as the band try out a jazzy interpretation of
We Will Rock You. Yes, that We Will Rock You, Queen's pumping stadium anthem. After an impressive piano intro, the band transform the song into a nice, smoochy groove. Then there's another speech from Karen.

Next,  My Favorite Things starts out like a sublime Prefab Sprout outtake. Too bad they proceed to murder it. The horn section in particular sounds pedestrian, though the pianist, whoever he is, is excellent.

As for Aoki, she has a pleasingly husky contralto. I have the feeling that if she really let loose we might see some fireworks. I also have the feeling she isn't going to do that tonight.

Since I'm an Englishman in Tokyo, I'm curious to see how the band will treat Sting's
An Englishman in New York. It's a decent version but seems a tad over-rehearsed and everything's just so.

Life's not like that and neither should jazz be. These guys need to let go and get more abstract because when they do they cook up some exciting stuff. There's precious little momentum, no sense of the unexpected. Instead it's a watered down collection of predictably safe jazz standards.

However, shortly thereafter comes a marvellous surprise when the stage curtain is raised to reveal a huge window behind the musicians framing the Tokyo cityscape below. It's a truly breathtaking moment.

For the encore Karen comes out with her pianist for a nicely stripped down version of The Carpenters' chestnut
Close to You, Once again I get the impression that this is where her talent lies - in a more abstract, minimalist vein akin to the Scandinavian 'cool' approach to jazz.

This was a pleasant evening, but I'd love to see famed ECM producer Manfred Eicher get his hands on these guys and have them push the envelope. Then we might see something transcendent emerge.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


The Music of Gion Matsuri
Kyoto, Japan

Gion Matsuri, one of Japan's most famous festivals, is upon us again.

Originating as an ancient purification ritual, the matsuri features street fairs, parades and spectacular floats and is attended by a quarter million visitors from Japan and abroad every year.

Curiously the festival is held during some of the most oppressive weather imaginable - temperatures are well into the 30s and are accompanied by debilitating levels of humidity.

Not only that. Since it's the tail end of the rainy season there's a fair chance festival goers will get drenched in one of Japan's legendary downpours.

Then there's the music.

The jangling bells, woozy flutes and ominous drums of Gion Matsuri are ubiquitous in Kyoto at this time of year. They are piped continuously through shopping arcades, main streets and, worst of all on underground train platforms where commuters are held hostage to their charmless drone.

Escape is all but impossible, the relentless boom of the drums only adds to the sense of ennui and depression as office workers endure their daily commute.

Removed from its ritualistic context, it's probably the least festive music you can imagine, a far cry from the rapturous sambas of Rio de Janeiro or the high energy excitement of San Francisco's Gay Parade.

Despite the faddish, hyper-modernity of Japan, the Matsuri music underlines how deeply the Japanese soul is rooted in tradition.

I can't help feeling ambivalent about this obsessive relationship with the past. Respect for the ancient ways can be an admirable trait, for example in the traditions which have created Japan's superlative cuisine. But one's best quality is often one's worst quality.

We love Japan partly because it has clung to its traditions longer than we have. But the ritualized conventions of Japanese society can also hinder spontaneity and social progress, or have the effect of shutting out the foreigner.

Most gaijin will probably never find themselves in Japan. Indeed, they are more likely to lose themselves.

Though Japan is crammed with experiences, sense impressions, and bizarre, unforgettable sights which baffle and charm, we don't belong to Japan and it will never belong to us.

As I become older, I realize that fitting in - just a bit - is what I crave; at least enough to somehow see myself reflected in the landscapes and soundscapes around me. Thus I suspect that one day I will leave Japan and head for a place where I can read the signs.

That's because getting a hold on Japan is like trying to grasp the elusive mountain mist. You spend an eternity attempting to track it down, then, just when you think you have it, it's gone.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Up There

Movie: Anvil! The Story of Anvil, (2009)
Directed by: Sacha Gervasi

When San Francisco band Handsome Poets broke up in 2000 it was a crushing experience for leader Stephen Duffy and his partner.

I should know. That partner was me.

As any band member will tell you, you invest every ounce of your being in the experience. You live, breathe and sleep music- writing it, playing it, recording it, arguing and worrying about it.

You lay everything on the line: your time, money, relationships, artistry and dreams.

Then there's the never-ending bullshit which lies outside your control. Indifferent club owners, moody soundmen, crappy changing rooms and soundchecks, backbiting with other bands over money and who plays first.

You hustle management and pester radio stations, imploring them to play your record, endure humiliation and self-doubt as you nervously prostrate yourself on the carpets of record company A & R men.

But the rewards, when they come, are worth all the indignity and degradation.

Like winning a major song competition. Or hearing your record on the radio. Or playing for thousands of people, feeling the incredible rush that comes from a live show. The pats on the back from strangers who want to touch you simply because they saw you on stage.

Because, as my partner Stephen used to say: when you're up there you really know you're alive.

It all came back to me as I watched the marvelous Anvil! The Story of Anvil, the tale of the Canadian prototype thrash-metal band who after near-success endured thirty years of failure and ennui as they choked on their faded dreams.

Amazingly they survived, held together by the self-belief and talent of leader Steve 'Lips' Kudlow and his drummer and sidekick Robb Reiner.

The Story of Anvil is by turns hilarious, heart-breaking and inspiring. Each moment rang true with me, as it will with every rock musician, especially the superb denouement set in Japan.

It's one of the best rock documentaries I've seen. If you really want to know what it's like to be in a band, including the highs, lows and everything in between, this is the movie to watch.