The Summer Sonic Festival, now entering its second decade of existence, might very well be the most disconnected music festival in all of Japan. Whereas the Fuji Rock Festival stockpiles dozens of domestic bands to compliment the various foreign acts playing, Summer Sonic mostly relegates Japanese acts to “opening” slots before noon. It’s the “international” festival, bullet-training bands between Tokyo and Osaka over a 48-hour span. Imagine the 90’s incarnation of Lollapalooza crammed entirely into one weekend and featuring few bands from the country its taking place in. Throw in an abundance of Jack Daniel’s whiskey tents and you’re good to go.
Not to say the Osaka portion of Summer Sonic on August 7 and 8 failed to deliver great music. Both days featured an abundance of enjoyable performances and, thanks to each of Osaka’s five stages basically sticking to a theme, few who-should-I-see conflicts. Plus Western artists tour Japan so rarely you can’t begrudge Summer Sonic for placing the emphasis on foreign performers. Not to mention the delicious tandoori chicken kebab on sale, best I’ve ever eaten. Yet in theory, a music festival should also have some sort of connection to the city it’s taking place in. Picking on Summer Sonic regarding this point is a little unfair, seeing as tons of festivals all around the world do the exact same thing. But that’s just it – take away fucking Funky Monkey Baby’s headlining slot and Summer Sonic could have happened anywhere in North America or Europe. There’s just a huge gap between the festival and Japan itself.
Surfer Blood. All photos taken by Spencer Kornhaber and his trusty iPhone.
There was also a huge gap between the festival venue and the nearest train station, forcing concert-goers to shell out eight bucks to take a slow-ass bus. This lag forced me to miss one of Japanese bands I’d wanted to see most, Sakanaction, but didn’t stop me from getting to the Sonic Stage (the festival’s “indie” stage, located inside a blissfully air-conditioned arena) by noon to see Surfer Blood. The sadly sparsely attended set saw the band plow through most of this year’s excellent Astrocoast, delivering energetic renditions of that album’s many highlights. Maybe not the most revelatory live set ever, but I went in expecting well executed takes on some of 2010’s best songs, and was not let down. More popular was The Drum’s set on the Sonic Stage later in the afternoon. The four-piece has amassed a relatively large following in Japan…large enough where I can go to my local karaoke joint and butcher “Let’s Go Surfing”…and the packed arena went crazy for each new song. Lead Drum Jason Pierce, boasting a put-on English accent, gesticulated around stage like indie rock’s Pee-Wee Herman. This spectacle (coupled with another band member’s impressive hops while banging a tambourine) nearly overshadowed the set’s biggest revelation – The Drum’s play tight live. There take on 80’s indie rock comes off way better live than on album…and I say that as someone who really likes The Drums…and the Osaka crowd ate all their antics up.
The rest of day one featured mostly incidental run-ins with sets while scouring for food or sleep. A hunt for lunch – I settled on a hot dog stuffed into an enclosed bun filled up with mustard – took place sandwiched between Japanese band The Pillow’s aggressive brand of J-Rock and whatever the hell Jason Derulo does when he’s not removing his shirt. Band Of Horses offered up quality nap time during their late afternoon set on Sonic Stage – I haven’t listened to their new album yet, but if their Summer Sonic performance hints at anything it’s a total snoozer. They seemed just be going through the motions…various still photos shown behind BoH showing them having more fun in the past than they clearly were in Japan didn’t help much…and this lackluster showing even turned a powerful tune like “The Funeral,” a song college freshman me would have flipped out for, into background noise. The highlight of the set came when I saw a three-year-old clapping her hands along to “Islands On The Coast.” That was adorable.
A Tribe Called Quest brought considerably more energy to their go on the Ocean Stage. Led by the patron saint of good times Q-Tip, the reunited rappers basically demanded the sizeable crowd enjoy themselves. They were happy to comply, eventually awarded with Tip himself going into the audience, causing a mad rush by the crowd to try to high-five him. It was BBQ-rap fun personified and one of the most exciting sets of Summer Sonic. The same couldn’t be said for another set of reunited legends – The Pixies’ headlining slot on the Sonic Stage fell flat, the group clearly not thrilled to be performing together. Save for Kim Deal who tried to have some fun with the crowd, the band simply clocked in and did their job, no real excitement coming out of them while they performed. There was still a thrill hearing them rip through “Wave Of Mutilation” or “Debaser,” I just wish Pixies would have as much fun playing these songs as the fans were hearing them.
Q-Tip in the crowd. Photo by Spencer Kornhaber.
The highlight of day one and of the entire festival, though, came from a highly unlikely source. South Africa’s Die Antwoord landed on this festival roster…and countless others…thanks to the video for their song “Enter The Ninja” going viral and basically becoming a The Soup talking point. Initially I thought there rise to success was akin to, say, Tay Zonday striking gold after “Chocolate Rain.” Yet their manic set Saturday night, though sometimes looking a little too much like YouTube comes alive, signaled they are in fact the real deal. Live, something I once thought of as goofy novelty emerged as an all-over-the-place rap set. Leader Ninja (born Watkin Tudor Jones) wildly around stage just like he does in that Web clip, but he also features a sick flow polished over the years. Yo-Landi somehow wriggled into gold tights and slapped her ass at the crowd, but she also boasted a solid flow and also carried hype-man duty. Most impressive was the mask-wearing DJ Vuilgeboost and his beats, an insane mash of strobe-light rave, boom-bap and sounds all Die Antwoord’s own.
Die Antwoord. Photo by Spencer Kornhaber.
What made this set so memorable…besides the large contingent of South Africans who flipped the fuck out over Die Antwoord – was the urgency of it all. Jones has been a player in the South African rap scene for years, and with Die Antwoord he’s finally found some international fame. He seems keenly aware, though, that such attention can and probably will dry up in the near future, especially considering his latest hip-hop group rocketed up via an Internet meme. He, along with the other two members, are making this run count – while other acts at Summer Sonic phoned it in, Die Antwoord made every gesture and rhyme count. It was a breathtaking show from an act who know they only have so much time to make it count.
Nothing on the fest’s second day came close to touching Die Antwoord, but two surprises early in the day made Sunday start on a better note than Saturday. First, Summer Sonic seemed way less crowded the second day…the line for the bus had vanished and getting around the grounds was suddenly a breeze. Second, Two Door Cinema Club somehow managed to create the only mosh-pit I saw at the entire affair. Bringing in a crowd that rivaled The Pixies in size, the young group blistered through most of their debut album Tourist History and kept the audience bopping the entire time. The band’s dizzy electro-rock, as it does on album, sometimes sounds a bit too similar from song to song, but Two Door Cinema Club’s live energy made up for those youthful mistakes. And yeah…set closer “I Can Talk” spurred a big mosh pit. Color me shocked
Two Door Cinema Club. Photo by Spencer Kornhaber.
Outside, Japanese rocker from the 70s Eikichi Yazawa delivered vintage J-Rock and punctured it with a lot of talking. Later on, Passion Pit did what they do, play really cluttered but still energetic electro-pop to an energized crowd. A solid enough show, I still slipped out early to get to the Sky Stage (which mostly served as the headquarters for prog rock) to see Pavement. It was my second time seeing the reunited indie legends, and their performance at Summer Sonic closely resembled the one I had seen earlier in the year – laid back and fun, though they had less time and thus delivered a set featuring a few less classics. They still managed to fit in “Cut Your Hair,” “Gold Soundz,” “Stereo” and “Spit On A Stranger,” as well as working in some stage banter regarding Nickelback (playing on the main stage at the time) and Taylor Swift (the band sang the chorus to “You Belong With Me”). Pavement by themselves still trumps seeing them in a festival setting, but even then it’s a good way to spend the afternoon.
Jay-Z closed out the festival strong, bringing in a big crowd to watch him tear through his discography. Jay, business man that he is, knew how to please the people – he brought in a massive set of video boards to increase the overall “wow” factor of his show, and he didn’t waste time, instead barreling through his song catalog and pumping the crowd up when he saw fit. Backed by a full band, “99 Problems” became a quick standout, hitting extra hard live. “Empire State Of Mind,” delivered midway through, also sent the diamond-waving crowd into a tizzy, the singer brought in to fill Alicia Keyes hook nailing it perfectly. I left early in order to avoid missing the last train out of Osaka, but what I saw was a strong performance by an artist who could easily pull a Pixies a call it in.
Still, my strongest memory from Sunday came during dinner. With The Offspring playing on the main stage, I chose instead to watch a bit of Japanese band Beat Crusaders on the slightly smaller Park Stage. I don’t know much about the five-piece, except they plan on disbanding in September, making this show one of their last ones for the time being. From a distance, it looked like a hell of a performance – the band played loud, melodic rock peppered with moments of experimentation (or sometimes just release). They even covered “There She Goes.” The fans appeared to be loving it, jumping up and down, pumping fists forward with every new track. It was maybe the most interesting scene to watch, and it brought me back to my big complaint with Summer Sonic…a group like Beat Crusaders adds a lot to a fest like this. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with international acts…especially so many great ones on display that weekend…but rather why couldn’t they find space for more groups like this? It may not make a huge difference in actual sound, but it would give Summer Sonic a Japanese flavor severely lacking from the 2010 version.
Correction: This report originally said Die Antwoord’s DJ for the show was DJ Hi-Tech. Turns out he doesn’t join the group on tour…DJ Vuilgeboost takes his place. Make Believe Melodies regrets the error.)