Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Summer Sonic: Life beyond the 'No Mosh'

Phil S - who used to send us reviews from Japan a while back - has got back in touch with something from Makukari's Summer Sonic Festival. It's good to have you back, Phil

The Summer Sonic festival takes places in Makukari, Chiba prefecture, just outside Tokyo. This does not deter every performer I see from shouting "Hello Tokyo! / Tokyo you are a better audience than Osaka! / Tokyo make some noise!" It's like a band at Reading saying "Good evening London are you ready to rark?" Anyway, it is incredibly hot here, temperatures up to around 35 degrees. Good range of bands across the umpteen stages. A good day out overall - I make the commute from west Tokyo, leaving just after 8 am and getting home about 1 am. Also, a very clean festival - no litter, no smoking in arenas, no "mosh" as the signs put it, no pushing .... but loads of tasty food options, clean WCs - and generally as well organised as most Japanese events are. A chance to catch up with some old stagers (feeling my age a bit) and some newer faces on the scene, man, as well as some stuff which had slipped under my radar. Here's how it unfolded for me:


First up, the Twang in the stadium in the noonday furnace. We sneak a crafty can of lager in and watch as they swagger about up there. First time for me to hear and see Twang, and not that impressed really; for me it's Oasis meets Simple Minds with a hint of U2 and Streets flavouring. There's a Bez type character rabble-rousing and cheerleading, throwing hooligan shapes and contributing the odd background vocal. I think they need to add another flavour or too - it's too predictable despite some funky tempo changes mid-song. My pal likes it though and he's a hard-rock fan.


Then, swaying a little in the heat, we head out, walking along the dual carriageway to the Messe (conference centre) where most of the indoor stages are, and we catch the Polyphonic Cacophony, as I have renamed them. 22 of them on stage, so it's not dull to look at, but my god have they turned it up to 11. So loud! The singer has one of those whiny Flaming Rev Grandaddy voices and is frankly irritating, running around the stage, punching the air with both hands together. It is a terrible racket really - they are going for something symphonic and inspirational, but it all gets lost in the mix. Less is more as my pal says. The "Lithium" cover is a novelty but overall the Spree was a punishing 40 minutes.


A quick break for a bowl of Okinawa pork on rice, and then back to see Brett Anderson rock the Sonic Stage. Seeing him prowl to the chilly prowl of set-opener "To The Winter" was a revelation. What a confident performer he is - you wouldn't know his solo album had failed to break the top 10. I'm a long-time fan, and like this show a lot - about half and half solo tracks from the album and half non-Bernard Butler Suede tuneage, which the crowd love. "Can't Get Enough" is a furious romp, "Everything Will Flow" is a romp, and then a triple "Coming Up" hat-trick of beautiful trash on a Saturday night round things off. "I'd like to play longer, but can't because of curfews and that shit", says Brett. Rock and roll!


Next we make the hike back to the baseball stadium and sit under the sun to watch the earnest, impassioned Bloc Party, who I don't really get. I'm not familiar with their stuff, and although there are a couple of points where it all makes sense, overall it's fiddly, not very tuneful and I don't think Kele can really sing very well.


The sounds of Prince's new record fill the air as the Manic Street Preachers prepare for action. Kicking off with "You Love Us", they turn in a professional performance of straightahead rock music! J D Bradfield is still a powerful vocalist and coruscating guitar player, and N Jones is wearing a skirt and striding exaggeratedly around the stage. "Ocean Spray" is dedicated to Mitsuhiro Ikeda, photographer, and has a cool sax solo. The new stuff sounds good: "Autumnsong" has a Guns N Roses vibe, and it's a shame Nina Persson hasn't made the trip to help out on "Your Love Alone is not Enough". Of all the bands I see on Sunday the Manics are the one whose CD I fish out in the next few days. This has me rediscovering them - a top melodic rock band with cutting edge.


Still, we don't stay for all their set as my pal wants to head back indoors to catch Motorhead, poor feller. I leave him to Lemmy and the boys and catch the last couple of tunes from Cyndi Lauper. From the back of the hall I can't make out much but she seems to be having a ball up there. "Time after Time" is acoustic and lovely, but let down when she calls Conor Oberst on stage (he'd played the Sonic Stage just before Cyndi) to add some horrible harmonies to the chorus. He later goes down with a fever and pulls out of the V Festival. She finishes with "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" (that guitar intro is iconic - the Strokes came on stage to it at Zepp Tokyo about five years ago and it sounded amazing) where lots of females young and old dance around the stage with Cyndi. Can't help but smile. As I leave the hall I overhear a Japanese young man marvel at these veteran 80s pop acts...

Motorhead are still doing their stuff on the Mountain Stage, so I wander into the Dance Stage hall where Vitalic is on stage, a bald fellow pumping out some thumping minimal (?) techno in front of a screen. Two songs is all I can take, but the crowd are well into it.

After Motorhead finish I catch up with my pal - he liked it a lot. Lots of short songs, fun banter from Lemmy, and the "Ace of Spades" too. Quieter than the Polychaotic Spree too, apparently.


An hour to kill before Tennant and Lowe headline the Sonic Stage, so en route to the food stalls for a steak sarnie and beer, we hop into the Dance Stage to see UNKLE. I liked their track with Ian Brown, "Be There", but didn't know much else. We watch about three tracks - they are now a full band, dressed in black, with two guys (one of whom might be J Lavelle?) on computer and "decks" maybe. For some reason I think Death in Vegas when I first see them. A diffident bloke sings live on one track, then on another Ian Astbury appears on the screen to sing "Burn my Shadow" which is pretty cool and propulsive. The live drums work well. Quite dark and intense all around, and not as popular with the dance crowd as Vitalic. Time for a beer, we think.


We take our Heinekens close to the front for the Pet Shop Boys. I've followed their career since 1985 and this is the first time I've seen them live. It's a good show - two young energetic male dancers work through inventive routines, Sylvia Mason-James and two male backing singers fill out the stage with some never overdone screen visuals behind. The PSB do a greatest hits set with not many post-1992 tunes - sadly none of their slower killers like "Being Boring" or even "London", which would have replaced the slightly dull "Minimal" / "Shopping" part of the set. The hall is rammed, Neil Tennant's vocals are spot on, and Chris does a wicked "Paninaro". Apparently the last date of their "Fundamental" world tour, this would seem a good send-off. The final "Go West" is immense and a massive crowd favourite. Beaming faces, hands in the air everywhere I look. And Sylvia Mason-James has an incredible voice. In a fairer world she would have a glittering solo career.

We wander back to the main baseball stadium where Arctic Monkeys have headlined above Kasabian, who seem to play Summer Sonic every year. We hear the Offspring mugging their way through "Pretty Fly for a White Guy" from the Mountain Stage as we amble onwards. One last beer at the outdoor bar with my pal, my pal's lady and her pals (who loved the Monkeys and Kasabian) .... and then I make the 90 minute trip home. A suitably super Summer Sonic Sunday!


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