The scene best summing up the 2010 Nara Street Style Music festival happened early in the afternoon, inside the event’s strangest venue, a hotel. In the hallway between a foyer, a banquet hall and what appeared to be a wedding area (all three serving as stages), the nightmare-inducing Nara mascot Sentokun danced about and mugged for cameras. Created as part of the city’s year-long 1300-year anniversary since being the capital of Japan, Sentokun came into the world shrouded in controversy for not being cute enough. Which in my mind could be code for “kinda frightening” – the visage of Sentokun combines that of a young Buddha with a deer, but instead of going the obviously adorable route…a pudgy deer wearing a robe…Nara chose the creepy path by making Sentokun into a creepy baby-man who also happens to have antlers coming out of his head. The demon mascot loomed over the festival – all promotional materials had his image on it somewhere and it seemed like every band HAD to mention Sentokun at some point during their performance. Then, of course, was the physical manifestation of Sentokun, a scary Disney reject who worked his way from one venue to the next like a desperate politician trying to change his image. And despite the overwhelming anti-Sentokun mindset, festival goers couldn’t get enough of the creepy fuck, clamoring for pictures with him.
Sentokun’s omnipresence served as a reminder that what felt like an otherwise extremely DIY event was actually a city-supported festival. A very weird city-supported festival, as the little detail of having three of the six stages in a hotel should have tipped you off to that fact. Yet don’t read any of those details as negative, save maybe for Sentokun’s continued existence. Nara Street Style Music felt like a music festival should – a showcase of mostly area artists with a few outsiders thrown in for good measure that also boasted plenty of odd charm (having half the performances inside the setting of that one Pitbull song). And easy access to beer. Though not nearly as huge as most modern day festivals, Street Style also felt more in touch with the city it repped than any Lollapalooza or insert-city ribfest ever could.
I arrived to Neverland Live House, Street Style’s hub, at noon. Neverland, located next to a convenience store and across the street from a two-story McDonald’s, had been transformed into a pleasant gathering area complete with makeshift bar and a guy selling curry out of a van. Also constructed, rather creatively out of Kirin beer boxes and some bedsheets, was a small stage. Four-piece HUMP BACK crowded onto the tiny crate-crafted staged as I arrived, ready to entertain the relatively small crowd. The band opened with a marching intro instrumental, splicing in weird electronic flashe whenever possible. HUMP BACK seemed poise to start the day off on an intriguingly strange foot, but the group’s subsequent songs played it far too safe. Despite the occasional moment of intrigue, the group eventually settled into sounding like a coffeehouse Goo Goo Dolls. The lead singer broke a string on his guitar and to bide time, the bassist talked about the weather. I made a run for it at this point and went to the Nara Royal Crown Hotel, home to three of Street Style’s stages.
I can’t emphasize how strange having concerts inside a hotel feels. Walking into the lobby and seeing scruffy musicians passing by well-off folks checking in for a weekend getaway seems really weird. Not quite as weird as having a stage set up in a room best served as the setting for an end-of-season banquet for a high school basketball team. I arrived just in time to catch the end of Wakonchu’s set, and instantly regretted my decision to give HUMP BACK a shot. An all-girl rock quartet, Wakonchu merged cutesy harmonies with punchy guitar-and-drums noise, not unlike Dressy Bessy at their best. I only caught 2.5 songs from Wakonchu, but they won me over by playing pretty pop not afraid to throw sand in your face.
The other two stages in the hotel, as mentioned, were set in what appeared to be an outdoor area best suited for weddings and a foyer-ish thing. Most of the artists playing in the wedding area sounded perfectly suited for a wedding reception, so I only paid a cursory glance there during the day. The foyer, though, seemed to be designated as the “twee” stage. ソラネコ primarily played Nickelodeon-friendly indie-pop featuring heavy use of ukulele and kazoo. One song appeared to be about pants, as the lead singer coaxed the small crowd into chanting the word “pants” over and over again. This could have been children’s music or a comedy outfit, really, but they played good enough songs, albeit ones trying to be “cute” at Deschanel-like levels. Later, the boy-girl duo 蜜 took the stage to play minimalistic pop, powered by simple guitar strumming, great singing and a little melodica.
Starting to grow a bit claustrophobic in the hotel, I decided to give IDLE BOYS a shot before darting out for some fresh air. Turned out I would get my sunshine a bit sooner than expected, when it became clear the band’s sound I originally noted “sounded like soft-rock Phoenix doing smooth jazz” revealed itself to be “yacht rock Maroon 5.” Ditching the hotel I sought out the final Street Style venue, Bar@THE DEEP. Tucked away in an alley, I found a tiny bar packed full by people eager to see Sarassa, a tropical-flavored act. The music itself wasn’t anything great, all sunny melodies and goofy island drums, only becoming really interesting when they ditched the fun-in-the-sun routine and got a little more sad. Still, Sarassa and the relaxed atmosphere of the bar was a welcome relief after spending nearly two hours roaming around a hotel to watch music. This felt more natural.
After flushing out the weird vibes of the hotel, I returned to Neverland to go to the main stage, the venue’s actual concert hall. I came in time to see 四星球’s entire set, which would end up being Street Style’s most memorable show. Emphasis on the last word. The guitarist, bass player and drummer came out clad only in what I can only describe as “Japanese traditional sweaters” and there underwear. They then performed a goofy intro dance set to some techno J-Pop. The lead singer then emerged from backstage dressed as a giraffe, complete with head constructed out of cardboard. He wandered through the audience, letting his lopsided head fall on several people, before taking the stage. The rest of their set featured several costume changes, hula hoops, a conga line and hand gestures galore.
The music of 四星球 wasn’t that critical. They sounded good enough – on-the-edges punk-pop leading to huge choruses – but by the end of the set I couldn’t remember much save for one chorus where lead singer dude just shouted “UFO!” repeatedly while dressed as Elmo. This was pretty much the musical equivalent of prop comedy, in the sense that I couldn’t imagine listening to this band on record because the visuals are more than half the fun. 四星球 put on a show where everyone pretty much has to get involved…at this point I note the lead singer pulled me into a circle and sorta made me shout into the microphone and it was awesome. It’s not like the Of Montreal live experience, which has turned into a pretentious clusterfuck of nothingness. It’s actually fun, and feels like something the audience actually can get involved in. It was the best show of the day.
BEANBAG followed this madness, trading in wild fan interaction for more self-sustained punk-pop that I could actually see listening to at home. Despite the lead singer’s wild stage presence and tendency to play air guitar, BEANBAG had the misfortune of following the day’s most wild act and coming before the band I most anticipated, √thumm. Having recently seen them live in Osaka, nothing about their live show caught me off guard – the set featured the exact same songs as the Fandango show, in the same order. But in Nara, the band’s hometown, they came off as more energized. They seemed a touch more happy to be performing at Neverland, and the crowd seemed way more into it than the people of Osaka, actually dancing. From a technical standpoint, one detail did stick out – the live drum kick seemed slightly subdued, and this actually made √thumm’s entire sound come off as better, allowing the myriad elements to flow together. Their set offered no major revelations, but did confirm a feeling cultivated during my last live encounter with the band – √thumm are one more good album away from having one of the best live shows in Japan.
At this point, five straight hours of music had taken a toll on me. That, or the loophole of having a convenience store stocking cheap Asahi next to a festival charging too much for drinks had finally caught up to me. Either way, Your Gold, My Pink, a band I’d been wanting to catch live since last year, came off as really “meh.” Their manic punk-tinged rock felt like a less interesting variation of what BEANBAG did a few hours earlier. That, coupled with them starting late and coming out to what I think was a Mates Of State track (note to bands…never feature the music of a much better performer as part of your act) made me lose interest early on. I desperately wanted to go to McDonald’s to get dinner…McNuggets shall surely re-energize me!…but doing so would put me at risk of missing Turntable Films over at the hotel. I put off food.
I arrived back at the hotel in time to catch the end of レトロ本舗 set in the banquet hall which thankfully had a lot of free seats. The only word to describe this band, in both good and bad contexts, was as “cute.” They wore matching bowling uniforms, played accordions and trumpets and horns, and sang cute songs that sounded vaguely like polka-punk versions of “Camptown Races.” Just…cute. Stepping outside I almost walked into the JaaJa concert. JaaJa play weird folk music using a washboard, a melodica, an accordion and guitar, all while wearing really creepy masks. It was hypnotic stuff, all shouts and strumming I’d expect from a group of funny farm buskers. They worked their way into the foyer…surprise…where they took their masks off and became a bit less interesting. I’d have loved to stay, but I wanted the entire Turntable Films’ experience so I dashed off to the banquet hall.
They won over the audience early on, during soundcheck, when the lead singer sang “There She Goes” to the audiences delight. When the set proper started, Turntable Films pretty much just played the entirety of their excellent Parables of Fe-Fum mini-album, opening with the sunny day skip of Beach Boy’s inspired track “Hot Tea After Lunch.” They did true-to-album renditions of their songs before finally reaching their finest song “2steps.” It hits just a little harder than anything else they’ve ever written, all while retaining the melodic prettiness the band does so well. A very strong show from a very good young band, and a really nice one too! Lead singer Yosuke Inoue couldn’t be a nicer dude when I bought Fe-Fum from him. If you need to root for a Japanese band to make it big, root for these guys.
I finally took care of my hunger, devouring a Quarter Pounder before deciding on seeing two more bands before heading home. The Street Style, headliner, Lostage, didn’t appeal to me enough to risk getting stranded in Nara for the night. Full of McDonald’s lab-produced goodness, I went back to Neverland to catch Cocoon. Like Your Gold, My Pink, they managed to start late and, also like YGMP, managed to be pretty middle-of-the-road rock, the most entertaining aspect of their show being IDLE BOY’S denim jacket-wearing lead singer stumbling around drunk. Following them were マッカーサーアコンチ, who managed to sound just as uninteresting as Cocoon while also being a thousand times more annoying. The lead singer, clad in sunglasses and a pedophile’s beard, couldn’t go ten seconds without commanding the audience to “get up” or “clap your hands” or “c’mon everyone!” After two-and-a-half songs incapable of moving the audience on their own punctured by directions, I got fed up and caught a train.
Despite some poor late acts, Street Style ended up being a fine little festival, boasting so many acts from the area that your more or less assured of finding something worth your time. It’s, as mentioned, the type of event all festivals should strive to be, with its emphasis on local music. With bloated Japanese festival monsters Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic just around the corner, it’s a nice little reminder that not all big musical gatherings have to be so soulless. Even if Sentokun lies in wait around every corner.