Summer Sonic 2014 Thoughts And Photos

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I’ve been to many a music festival (eight Lollapaloozas, Outside Lands, Ultra and Deluna Fest, to name a few), and while I’ve always enjoyed going to them to catch as many live bands as possible, in recent years I became entirely dejected with them – thanks in large part to the horrible crowds.

In my experience, audiences at festivals have always been complete garbage, getting worse every year. People talk loudly over the music. They throw shit on stage. They have an overwhelming need to get fucked up or wasted. They start fights. They just generally suck.

But now that I live in Japan, I wondered – is it the same here? In my eight months here, I’ve noticed that Japanese people are by and large excessively polite (sometimes to a fault). Would that extreme courtesy and kindness extend itself to a festival?

Well, when it was announced that Kraftwerk was playing Summer Sonic 2014, one of the largest music festivals in the country, I decided it was time to find out.

And while I don’t want to spoil anything – yeah, Japanese audience are pretty dope.

In fact, almost everything at this festival was dope, starting with the very first band I saw – The Bots.

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Sometimes you find a band whose so talented and so young that it kind of scares you, and that’s how I felt when I stumbled upon The Bots. A pair of brothers aged 16 and 20, these young’ins have been rocking their unique brand of garage punk rock since they were in grade school, literally playing music for more than half of their lives.

With their stripped down, guitar-and-drums sound, the duo will no doubt draw comparisons to The White Stripes, but they’re far grimier and rough around the edges than Jack White’s band ever could have been. When I hear them I hear a 21st century Sonics, just pure, hard and LOUD rock. Great energizer to star the day, and a fitting opener for the Mountain Stage, which would be home to some even more intense music as the day went on.

With The Bots out of the way, I had some time to kill. The next act I really wanted to catch was Babymetal, and they weren’t due to take the stage until 2:25, so I decided to wander the festival grounds and check the lay of the lands.

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A side area with some diversions and such

Summer Sonic is a weird festival, and no, not in the “Japan is weird” sense (although…well, kinda, but more on that later). No, it’s weird in that it’s actually spread out across two different venues. The three indoor stages were held inside Makuhari Messe, a large convention center right by the train station, while the outdoor stages were on the grounds of Marine Field, the home of the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball team.

The layout of Messe was simple, three stages in a row, with food and other diversion areas spread out between them. The design of the Marine Field area, and getting to it, was a little more convoluted.

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The food court

For starters, there was only one way to get to the Marine Field once you were inside the Messe. You had to leave out one exit, walk down the street to an overhead walkway, traverse that for several minutes, then go down a set of stairs, walk along an outside path for several more minutes, cross a small canal, and then continue alongside the field area for several more minutes until you came across the main entrance to that area. Once you did that, you could count on at least another 10 minutes of walking to get to either the Marine Stage (which I actually never did go to) or the side Beach Stage. In a lot of ways it was actually an ideal setup. Move the stages as far as possible from each other to prevent sound bleed and cut down on crowds. But in a lot of other ways it was a damn nightmare, mostly because of that trek between venues. A 30 minute walk is a long one, especially in the scorching heat and/or pouring rain, which was what the weather alternated between on Saturday.

The frustrating thing about it is that it could have been avoided if the layout was a bit more open, but the organizers just allowed for that one path between the two areas. I’m sure there was a perfectly good reason for this, but I’m equally sure that there are many perfectly better reasons for not having it that way. By the time I got to the Beach Stage to check out a Japanese act whose name I’ve forgotten I was so damn exhausted that I just collapsed on a bench. I think a Japanese kid with bleached blonde hair and a Goblin t-shirt danced at me during this time. But that may have been a fever dream.

Confused, tired and possibly hallucinating, I made my way back to the Messe, for some metal, j-pop style.

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Kawaii for Satan

That’s Babymetal. To call Babymetal a weird group is to give the word weird too much credit. They are one of the strangest and most unique groups I’ve ever heard or seen in my entire life. They are a J-pop/heavy metal hybrid.  Imagine if Britney Spears did a collaboration with Dragonforce, or if Debbie Gibson teamed up with Slayer. That’s the level of internal disconnect we’re talking about here. Don’t believe me? Check out a video.

See? They’re like spokespeople for “Weird Japan.”

Anyway, I checked them out mostly for the novelty, but I was surprised to find that they were actually pretty damn good. The metal band behind them could really play, and the girls themselves aren’t bad singers, albeit the kind of vocals they were performing didn’t call for much range. Additionally, the audience was way into it, and that added to a frantic and frenetic mood that really made the whole experience one I’m never going to forget.

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Suicidal Tendencies were up next, and I stuck around to see them. However, most of the people in attendance for Babymetal did not. Almost everyone left actually, which really surprised me. In my previous experiences at festival shows, die-hard fans of a band will show up to a stage two, three, maybe even four or more acts early just to get a prime viewing spot for their group. That didn’t seem to be the case here. People came for the music they wanted to hear and then left, making it really easy to snag prime viewing real estate even if you weren’t there three hours early. It was really great, and was a level of courtesy and music appreciation that I wasn’t accustomed to at festival gigs, and a happy sign of happy feelings to come.

It was with that warm and fuzzy feeling in my heart that I sat down and waited for Suicidal Tendencies to take the stage.

Oh boy.

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Mike Muir has been kicking it under the ST name for over 30 years now. And that’s to be commended, but at the same time…damn, Mike maybe it’s time to call it quits. While the rest of the group (none original members, most from this decade) were plowing through the group’s back catalog with a furious rage, Mike was a mess, often running out of breath and unable to sing. He also padded his set with a ton of forced “S…T…S…T…” chanting that got old really fast, and was an obvious attempt to cover for the fact that he needed to take long breathers between songs. Thankfully, he sounded at the top of his game for “Possessed To Skate,” which he dedicated to the recently departed Z-Boy Jay Adams.

But they didn’t play “Institutionalized,” what the fuck was up with that?

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Is it just me or does Mike look like a punk version of Louis CK?

Equal parts exhilarated and dejected, I made my way over to the beach stage for a triple-threat of old-school hip-hop; The Pharcyde, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and De La Soul. As this was on the other side of Marine Field and I was still in Makuhira Messe, it took me eight hundred billion hours (approximately) to make it there, so I missed a bit of The Pharcyde’s set, but for every second I saw them they were strictly on point. They did fun medleys of old tunes (both covers and originals) before dropping classic old-school jams like “Drop,” and “Passin’ Me By.” Probably one of the greatest live rap performances I’ve ever seen.

It was during Pharcyde that something happened to me that I’ve never had happen at a festival before. A security guard jumped the rail and told me to stop taking photos. Earlier in the day I saw a warning against taking photos of bands while they were performing, but I ignored because I saw countless others snap photos during other performances (because Japan). I also ignored it because it’s a stupid rule, and one that I haven’t seen at a concert since, oh, 1998.

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THE PHOTO OF THE PHARCYDE THAT SUMMER SONIC DIDN’T WANT YOU TO SEE

The little guard seemed pissed, but whatever. I continued to ignore it. It’s dumb rule and impossible to enforce.

And besides, I’m bigger than them.

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I don’t know what Pete Rock is doing here

Pete Rock and CL Smooth killed it too, but between the pouring rain and my utter exhaustion, I sat most of that set out so I could refuel for De La Soul, who closed out the Beach Stage with a, well, interesting set.

De La Soul are legends 25 years into their careers and they can still drop rhymes better than anyone else out there, that is, when they can be bothered to. Just like Suicidal Tendencies, De La Soul spent way too much time padding their set with on stage banter and “put your hands in the air” gimmicks. They even false-started and stopped some songs several times over because they “really wanted us to make some noise.” And I’m sorry, but it was hard for me to find the motivation to do so when one member of the group repeatedly checked his messages on his phone and texted while rapping.

Really.

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Although I won’t harp on them too much, since at one point they did take time out to point at me and say I had a nice t-shirt. YOU HEAR THAT DAD?! DE LA SOUL LIKES MY SHIRTS. Take that, dressing like an adult! No one ever gets props from old-school hip-hop acts for wearing polo shirts.

I may have an axe to grind about that issue, sorry. Let’s move on to the final act I checked out on the first day.

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Akiko Yano is a pop singer who’s been releasing music in Japan for over 30 years now. Early in her career she was married to Ryuichi Sakamoto, and many of her first records are pretty much YMO records with her on vocals. While I’m not that familiar with her newer stuff, I realized that my chances to see her again were probably pretty slim, so I elected to check her out in lieu of the big headliners, Phoenix and Avenged Sevenfold. I’m so glad I did too, because she was utterly charming and adorable, performing a brief but buoyant set of upbeat and fun tunes. She stopped to talk to the audience a few times, but they seemed to enjoy it (I no speak nihongo) so I really can’t complain about it.

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And the day ended with fireworks!

Utterly exhausted beyond the point of being able to form critical thoughts, I shambled to the long train home and immediately slept for nine hours. So I kind of got a late start for day two, not making my way into the festival grounds until after noon.

First up: Mayday.

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The ladies love them

Fun. But not my thing. So I bailed to check out British indie act Circa Waves.

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Go home

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Bland and drab c-grade britpop. People still make music like this? Horrible, meandering nonsense. Couldn’t escape from them fast enough.

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Dramatic Concert Lighting 101

With my options limited, I headed down to the Rainbow Stage to check out Dinosaur Pile-Up, a group who I once read described as “obvious Nirvana fans.” And yup, that review was not a lie. These dudes like Nirvana. And the Foo Fighters. But hey, y’know what? I like Nirvana and the Foo Fighters too. And since we don’t have many bands ripping them off at the moment, I’ll take it. Besides, its fun music to listen to live. And they brought dinosaurs!

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EVERYBODY ROCK THE DINOSAUR

Shockingly enough, that would by far not be the weirdest thing I saw that day.

I was dead set on seeing J-pop sensation Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, so I made my way over to the Sonic Stage one act early just to get a good spot (how non-Japanese of me). Before her was Charli XCX, who I only knew from Icona Pop’s “I Love It” (which I adore) and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” (which I wish the plague upon). So imagine my surprise when she took that stage and I found out she was some magical fabulous combination of Cyndi Lauper and Siouxsie Sioux.

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Nice robe

A lot of the bands I saw at Summer Sonic were obviously there to entertain, but Charli was the only one I saw who came out there intending to conquer. From the first second she ran onto the stage until the second she walked off, she owned it. Fierce beyond fierce, she was emotional, she was raw, she was brutal, she was everything you want in a pop star and more. Goddamn. If there’s any justice in the world and she plays her cards right she’s going to be the biggest pop star in the world.

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Incredible

And she played “I Love It” but not “Fancy,” thank God.

Up next was Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

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Subtle look

Yeah…I don’t know how to describe Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Um…let me try an elevator pitch.

Lady Gaga meets Kylie Minouge meets that woman from Space Channel 5. Hell, lets throw in that crazy space lady from The Fifth Element too. Yeah, that feels about right.

What I’m saying is, she’s really weird. And not just “Japan weird.” I talk to my Japanese co-workers about her and they think she’s weird. It’s not because of cultural differences, I feel safe in saying that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is objectively weird.

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Backup singers brought to you by the Lollipop Guild

Her music is also pretty good though, although sometimes it can be grating. I own two of her albums and while I like them, I think her unique, moderately abrasive style of high energy dubstep/pop works best when taken in moderation. But an arena full of Japanese people screaming their damn heads off seemed to dig her, so what do I know? And like Babymetal the day before, it was certainly an experience I won’t forget soon.

After two intense sets in a row, I needed to chill. Good timing that Banks was about to take stage.

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Not as goth as she looks.

Banks is a British singer whose debut album comes out later this year. I had never heard of her before seeing her live, and she was a pleasant surprise of super chill trip-hop ala Portishead with a dash of electro and R&B thrown in. Imagine Lana Del Ray but with an actual good voice and production. Her music is exceedingly low-key and quiet. She would have been impossible to hear at an American festival. People would have talked over her the entire time. But I could barely hear a whisper during her set. That’s when it hit me: no one was talking.

Okay, some people were talking, I’d hear the occasional chatter and such, but that was few and far between. For the most part, when I band took the stage at Summer Sonic, the people shut the fuck up and watched them. It was so quiet at times that the bands themselves took note and checked to make sure that everyone was having fun (they were, just quietly). I’ve heard some Japanese people lament how quiet the audiences at Japanese concerts can be, but that’s bullshit. Don’t ever change Japan.

Oh, I also saw Ellie Goulding.

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She was nice. Not much to say about her though, I’d rather talk about the group I saw next; Boom Boom Satellites.

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Boom Boom Satellites are my favorite Japanese band that are still making new music. I first saw them live in 1999 when they opened for Moby on his first Play tour, and I’ve been a fan ever since. While their early stuff was very experimental with a strange jazz bent, over the years they’ve slowly morphed into a hard-edged, fast-paced electronic rock band – imagine Garbage but with a faster tempo and more guitars. If you’re interested, check out “Kick It Out,” or pretty much any of their live footage, they’re one of the greatest live bands on earth.

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I was near the very front for their set, and to my surprise, a mosh pit broke out about halfway through. Well, I guess “mosh pit” might be a bit excessive, maybe “fairly aggressive pogo-ing” might be a more apt description. At nearly two meters tall and pushing 130kg, I really wasn’t threatened by the Japanese styled “chaos,” but at one point I was jostled pretty heavily and I lost my footing. I recovered quickly, but soon discovered that my camera bag, which was clipped to my backpack, had been knocked away. I started frantically looking for it on the ground, and when it became obvious that I had lost something important, everyone else in the mosh pit stopped moshing until I could find it.

Japan audiences. The best audiences. Period.

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“Oh no not more fog!”

Riding high off of the good vibes and great music, I made by way back to the Mountain Stage for the last act of the show: Kraftwerk, who were performing with a special 3D screen projection behind them.

If you would have told me 20 years ago that at the age of 34 I’d be losing my shit watching four old German dudes play keyboards, I’d have punched you in the face whilst quoting Korn. But there I was, screaming like a schoolgirl and dancing like an idiot while the innovative electronic pioneers delivered amazing renditions of “Autobahn,” “Computer Love” and “Trans-Europe Express.”

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This might be the best photo I’ve ever taken

Kraftwerk’s music is extremely minimal at times, and I’ve seen live footage of them at other festivals where you can barely hear the music over the inane chattering of the crowd. Of course, that was not the case here, with the crowd showing an incredible amount of respect for the legendary group. That respect was returned to them when Ralf stepped away from his keyboard to announce that tonight’s version of “Radioactivity” was translated into Japanese by Ryuichi Sakamoto (who recently announced he’s battling cancer). Not only that, the no nuke anthem was further updated to included references to Fukushima.

No one danced to that one.

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They closed with “Techno Pop” though, thank God. If they would have left the stage after playing “Radioactivity” I think the whole audience would have gathered for a group hug and a good cry.

I’m only half-joking. I know I’ve said it many times over, but I really have to emphasize just how damn amazing the crowd was. All the dumb shit I’ve seen western audiences do over the years? None of that happened here. None of it. Did you see that footage of the Japanese soccer fans cleaning up after themselves after their team LOST in the World Cup? It was just like that. Sure, I noticed some trash on the convention hall floor as the lights went up and everyone headed for the exit, but it was a minuscule amount, just a smattering of plastic bottles. And I didn’t see any puke, broken bottles, or evidence of any smuggled contraband (I didn’t smell weed once during this entire festival – a literal breathe of fresh air). All of this with nary a cop in sight.

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GIANT SUNFLOWER SAYS GOODBYE AND FAREWELL

Usually at the end of a festival I have mixed feelings. I enjoyed the music, but everything around it was unpleasant and irritating that my enjoyment always ended up tainted with the stink of rude obnoxious assholes (ew). But with said assholes gone, replaced by the largest group of incredibly kind and well-behaved people I’ve ever laid witness to in my entire life, each night I was just euphoric – having taken in nothing but amazing music with none of the bullshit baggage that typically came with it when I would go to fests in America.

So yeah, while the venue layout was a little frustrating and the weather was horrendous, a decent crowd who behaved like decent human beings sure as hell went a long way, making this by far the most fun I’ve ever had at a music festival. Consider me a regular attendee at Summer Sonic from now on.

Now if they could just do something about that stupid camera ban…

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