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Japan's summer music juggernaut rolls on

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By Dan Grunebaum

Nano-Mugen Festival 2009 Headliners: Asian Kung-Fu Generation, Manic Street Preachers, Ben Folds
Asian Kung Fu Generation at Nano-Mugen Fest. 2009

Arecent trend in Japanese music events is the emergence of Lollapalooza-like artist-led festivals. World music gathering Earth Celebration, created by the Kodo drummers, and techno rave Wire, founded by DJ Takkyu Ishino, are among the most prominent. Others include Japanese dancehall unit Mighty Crown’s Yokohama Reggae Sai, and pop-punk group Asian Kung-Fu Generation’s Nano-Mugen Festival.

Since launching Nano-Mugen (nano as in “nanotechnology,” mugen as in “limitless”) at historic rock dive Shinjuku Loft in 2003, the band, together with label Sony Ki/oon, have nurtured it into a proper arena festival. Along with a gaggle of domestic pop-punkers, this year’s two-day fest features international guests in the form of England’s Manic Street Preachers, Hard-Fi and The Young Punx, with North America represented by Ben Folds and Nada Surf.

When: July 19-20 Where: Yokohama Arena Tickets: 9,600 yen (one day) Tel: Disk Garage 03-5436-9600 Web: www.nano-mugenfes.com Survival kit: Earplugs, elbow pads, beer goggles

Fuji Rock Festival 09 Headliners: Oasis, Franz Ferdinand, Weezer

Despite the growing challenge posed by Summer Sonic, Masa Hidaka’s Fuji Rock Festival remains the premier destination festival in Asia. The cancellation of the inaugural event on the slopes of Mt Fuji in 1997 due to a typhoon has become part of rock lore, and resulted in the festival’s relocation to a spot far from the mythical mountain (to the chagrin of many ill-informed artists).

But the current location at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata prefecture proved a good fit, with plenty of lodging facilities and a stunning mountain backdrop for the over 100,000 festival-goers.

After Primal Scream topped the main Green Stage bill on two out of three nights amid a dearth of credible headliners last year, this year’s festival marks a return to world-beating form. Oasis, Franz Ferdinand and Weezer are each capable of filling an arena, while the second tier is occupied by worthy acts like The Killers, Patti Smith, The Neville Brothers, Simian Mobile Disco, Public Enemy and Animal Collective.

FRF often provides a chance to assess the talents of some of Japan’s better musicians, both emerging and established. This year is no exception, with venerable warhorse Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, iconoclastic singer UA and the young, anthemic girl rockers Mass Of The Fermenting Dregs on the bill.

Yet some of the most eye-opening performances are to be experienced away from the main stages. This year marks the debut of Café De Paris, which “in the spirit of Edith Piaf” will feature live French music and stalls serving French cuisine. Out past the gates at the free-entry Palace of Wonder—where Japanese indie bands vie for the chance to reach a mass audience—the usual gaggle of performance artists will this year be joined by the State Circus of Mongolia.

Also on the bill is a tribute to the festival’s most celebrated and frequently featured artist, Kiyoshiro Imawano. More than 40,000 paid their respects when the flashy rocker passed away this May at the age of 52.

When: July 24-26 Where: Naeba Ski Resort, Niigata Prefecture Tickets: 16,800 yen (one day), 39,800 yen (three days) Tel: 070-5467-6732 Web: www.fujirockfestival.com Fan site: www.fujirockers.org Survival kit: Full-body Gore-Tex, lightweight portable chair

Rock In Japan Festival, 2009 Headliners: Ulfuls, Dragon Ash, Unicorn

The world’s premier J-rock showcase, RIJ has emerged as Japan’s largest single-location rock festival since its genesis in 2000, reportedly out-drawing both Fuji and Summer Sonic.

Organized by Rockin' On inc, which issues Japanese rock magazine Rockin’ On, the event spans three days at a seaside meadow in Ibaraki prefecture with a lineup that takes in everything from hip-hop to punk to indie-rock, with the notable exception of Ayumi Hamasaki-style idoru J-pop (which has its own festival in the form of record company Avex’s A-Nation).

This year’s RIJ is the largest ever, with some 140 acts slated to perform on six stages and a DJ booth. With a smaller pool of talent to draw on than Fuji Rock or Summer Sonic, the headline acts tend to be repeaters. Among them are rap-rock warhorse Dragon Ash and dancehall stalwart MC Kreva, with recent comers Flumpool representing the younger generation.

Perhaps of more interest are indie acts like eccentric but talented singer-songwriter Shugo Tokumaru, jam band Overground Acoustic Underground and high-wattage, punk-pop-noise girl group Tsushimamire.

When: July 31-Aug 2 Where: National Hitachi Seaside Park, Hitachinaka City, Ibaraki Prefecture Tickets: 11,500 yen (one day), 22,000 yen (two days), 30,000 yen (three days) Tel: 0180-993-611 Web: www.rijfes.co.jp Survival kit: Japanese-English dictionary, kitsch-deflecting forcefield

Summer Sonic 2009 Headliners: My Chemical Romance, Linkin Park, Beyonce
Beyonce at Summer Sonic 2009

With three days and six stages at the gargantuan Makuhari Messe convention center, Naoki Shimizu’s Creativeman had plenty of space to play with for the tenth anniversary edition of Japan’s leading urban rock fest.

Modeled along the lines of England’s Carling Festival, Summer Sonic is a commuting-distance event that caters to a younger demographic with thinner wallets. Held simultaneously at sites in Tokyo and Osaka, the festival sees bands shooting back and forth between Kanto and Kansai to entertain the estimated 200,000 who are likely to gather.

This year’s will be the first time Summer Sonic has stretched out to three days, resulting in a bill that runs from the vintage jazz-rock of War to the 21st-century cyber-pop of Lady Gaga, from the New York experimental indie of Sonic Youth to the Danish garage of Mando Diao and the Brit-rock of Keane. One can only imagine the conversations that might take place when the likes of Beyonce gather backstage with Scotland’s scruffy Mogwai. The local rock fraternity is represented by the techno clash of Boom Boom Satellites, the pop-punk of Okinawa’s Mongol 800 and the summery sounds of Shonan beach boys Kimaguren.

Watch for the prone bodies underfoot as three days of tramping Makuhari’s concrete escarpments begins to take its toll, and head for the Beach Stage in the evening to catch rumpus-raisers Gogol Bordello against a backdrop of the sun sinking beneath the oily waves of Tokyo Bay.

When: August 7-9 Where: Chiba Marine Stadium and Makuhari Messe Tickets: 14,000 yen (Aug 7), 15,000 yen (Aug 8/9), 39,500 yen (three days) Tel: 0180-993-030 Web: www.summersonic.com Survival kit: SPF50 sunscreen, wide-brim hat, emergency water supply

Metamorphose 09 Headliners: Tangerine Dream, Afrika Bambaataa, Richie Hawtin

In 2000, techno DJ Mayuri Akama sought to broaden the horizons of outdoor electronic music festivals at a time when Japanese raves were increasingly dominated by the unremitting doof-doof of psychedelic trance music. The result was Metamorphose, which takes in plenty of electronica but also finds space for post-rock and experimental music.

This year’s tenth edition sees the festival comfortably settled at a bicycle racetrack in the hot-spring town of Shuzenji on the Izu peninsula. The bill traces the geographical roots of electronic music from locations as diverse as Detroit, where in the ’80s techno pioneers like Los Hermanos and Richie Hawtin were engaging in experiments with funk, synth-pop and new sequencing gadgets, to Germany, where krautrock pioneer Tangerine Dream used sequencing and synth pads to lay the foundation for trance, ambient, and even the work of bands like Radiohead.

While Japan gave electronic music its essential sequencing and sampling gizmos, Japanese musicians and producers have in turn been powerfully influenced by creative currents from North America and Europe. Mayuri’s deep connections in the electronic music scene always guarantee a bumper crop of domestic acts. This year, keyboard wunderkind Rei Harakami, ambient music producer Calm and psych-rock oddballs Yura Yura Teikoku are among those likeliest to put on the strongest sets.

When: Sept 5 Where: Cycle Sports Center, Shizuoka Prefecture Tickets: 11,500 yen Tel: Disk Garage 03-5436-9600 Web: www.metamo.info Survival kit: Space blanket, Red Bull

Tokyo Summer Festival 2009 Headliners: Kamiuta, Matsuo Ohno, Jean-Baptiste Barriere
Miyako Nishihara Singers at Tokyo Summer Festival

Founded in 1985 by pianist Kyoko Edo, composer Maki Ishii and musicologist Takashi Funayama, the Tokyo Summer Festival is a sprawling, month-long series of concerts built around a different concept each year.

The theme this time around, “Voices and Sounds of Japan,” suggests an absence of the usual world music guests from far-flung locales. Instead, the 2009 event should offer an absorbing sonic slideshow of Japanese musical traditions, from the dying “Kamiuta” embodied by singers from the distant southern Miyako Islands to mid-20th century experimental electronic music.

The former is represented by septuagenarian and octogenarian singers Kiyo Murayama, Nagasaki Toyo and Matsu Takara, who have all served as spiritual priestesses called nanamui. The latter includes a program entitled “Japanese Electronic Music,” which presents groundbreaking 20th century pieces selected by YMO legend Ryuichi Sakamoto. Another evening, “The Colors of Time: Percussion, Electronics and Images,” features Japanese percussion virtuoso Shiniti Ueno accompanied by French electronics and visual manipulator Jean-Baptiste Barriere. Matsuo Ohno, the creator of the music for seminal anime series Astro Boy, will also be presenting a live electronic performance of music set to film.

When: June 29-July 29 Where: Various venues (see concert listings for details) Tickets: Prices vary according to event Tel: 03-5301-0950 Web: www.arion-edo.org/tsf Survival kit: Bilingual Tokyo subway map, GPS-equipped cell phone

Tokyo Jazz Festival 2009 Headliners: McCoy Tyner, John Scofield, Hiromi Uehara, Lou Donaldson, Melody Gardot
McCoy Tyner at Tokyo Jazz Festival 2009

In 2002, public broadcaster NHK gave legendary pianist Herbie Hancock the mission of outlining a future for jazz while staying true to its traditions. After testing various formats and venues ranging from stadiums to convention centers, Tokyo Jazz settled into the elegant Tokyo International Forum, which has proved a good fit for its more conservative approach since Hancock gave up the reins.

But the festival still nods to the future, which this year comes in the form of young Dutch singer Wouter Hamel. The Sinatra-influenced crooner headlines the opening “Gala Night,” which will also feature young piano phenomenon Hiromi Uehara going head-to-head with eccentric, whispery singer-pianist Akiko Yano.

The second day features two programs. “Groove” will see performances by angular, idiosyncratic jazz guitarist John Scofield, while “Jazz is Beautiful” features Melody Gardot, a 24-year-old American vocalist with a compelling storyline: at 19, she had a near-fatal biking accident and discovered her calling while undergoing music therapy.

Certified jazz legends are in ever-shorter supply these days, but there will be two of them making an appearance on the final day. The daytime “Jazz Heritage” program features sets by the tasteful Manhattan Jazz Quintet and incomparable pianist McCoy Tyner, who accompanied John Coltrane on his journeys into the sonic stratosphere. The festival winds up with “Legends of Funk, Blues and Jazz,” starring funky saxophonist Lou Donaldson in a “Blue Note Records 70th Anniversary Super Jam” alongside capable domestic jazz-funk unit Quasimode.

When: Sept 4-6 Where: Tokyo International Forum Hall-A Tickets: 6,500-9,500 yen (individual concerts) Tel: Hello Dial 03-5777-8600 Web: www.tokyo-jazz.com Survival kit: Binoculars

Earth Celebration Headliners: Kodo, BLØF
Earth Celebration

Two decades after founder Toshio Kawauchi created a festival “for world culture to flow in new directions,” music fans from all over the globe flock to experience iconic taiko drum ensemble Kodo’s Earth Celebration.

A three-day event hosted by Kodo at its base on Sado Island in the Japan Sea, the festival combines earthshaking beats, instructional workshops, flea markets and a freewheeling spirit, served up in a languid island atmosphere.

Since 1981, the committed members of Kodo have been spreading their gospel of global unity through music via endless touring, and since 1988 through the Earth Celebration. The grand finale at each EC sees that year’s guests joining Kodo onstage for a collaborative performance, often with unanticipated results.

The invitees for 2009 include Dutch musical explorers BLØF, with whom Kodo recently recorded a number one single in The Netherlands. At root a rock group, BLØF has also in the past decade embarked on the kind of world music collaborations typical of Kodo. The band’s strong-selling 2006 album Umoja saw them working with artists from a dozen countries.

When: Aug 16-18 Where: Ogi Town, Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture Tickets: Prices vary for individual events Tel: 0259-81-4100 Web: www.kodo.or.jp Survival Kit: Headlamp, picnic box, reading material for the long journey

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

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8 Comments
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thanks for the info on Osaka summersonic.Wait....

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[pedant]The Manic Street Preachers are Welsh, not English.[/pedant]

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Maybe my taste in music isn't as eclectic or up-to-date as I thought it was, but I'm thoroughly underwhelmed by almost all of these lineups.

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fujirock has been weak for years. Summersonic is really hit or miss.

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Nada Surf would be worth seeing but none of the headliners do it for me. I don't really know what Ben Folds has done since the song "Closing Time"

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[pedant]The Manic Street Preachers are Welsh, not English.[/pedant]

Thanks, Ersby - you've saved me having to write that. I saw the Manics at Fuji Rock 9 years ago....

Gogol Bordello are bluddy brilliant and I'm told they're particularly good live.

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Nada Surf would be worth seeing but none of the headliners do it for me. I don't really know what Ben Folds has done since the song "Closing Time"

I think you're confusing Ben Folds with the singer from SemiSonic. I don't know what happened to the latter, but Ben Folds has been continually releasing albums and performing live since he debuted.

I'd love to see Weezer, wouldn't mind seeing Ben Folds, and Ulfuls put on a really great live show, but other than those bands, none of these lineups are doing anything for me. I heard NIN would be appearing at Summer Sonic but there was no mention of them in this article. Did they back out?

Beyonce is lovely but I'm not sure why they chose her as headliner, especially since this year's lineup is mostly rock/alt bands.

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I'm not impressed at all with the headlines. and not happy with the pricing either. Gogol Bordello is fantastic

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