Live report: Fuji Rock Festival12

Radiohead conquered, The Stone Roses sucked, and the sun kept shining

Live report: Fuji Rock Festival ’12

It didn't rain.

There were many notable things about Fuji Rock Festival '12: the sold-out crowds on Saturday and Sunday, Radiohead's long-overdue debut at the event, a headlining appearance by the reformed Stone Roses, the shortest toilet queues in living memory. But for most of the 140,000 punters who attended, this year's fest was defined by that once-in-a-decade rarity: an uninterrupted, three day spell of good weather.

Rain and muddy drudgery are such a constant at Fuji Rock's home in Naeba, Niigata Prefecture that it felt almost unnatural to get through the entire thing without once having to don a raincoat. Bursts of lightning may have lit up the horizon in the evening, but the dreaded mountain downpours never came. Old-timers said they hadn't had it this good since 2002, and the generosity of the weather gods lent the festival a beatific sheen that made even Sunday's vast crowds feel more bearable.

It seemed like a significant portion of that crowd were there to see Radiohead, whose two-hour set on the final night was about as good a closer as Fuji could have hoped for. Their lineup bolstered by a second drummer, the group stuck mostly to the stark, percussive material of their post-Kid A era. Standouts included 'Weird Fishes/Arpeggi', 'Staircase' and a ferocious take on 'Myxomatosis', though it was an encore rendition of 'Paranoid Android' that got the biggest cheer of the night. The group may keep on pushing stadium-sized rock spectacle into uncharted territories, but at the end of the day people still just want to hear the hits.

Opinion on The Stone Roses was predictably split between dedicated fans (loved it) and others less blinded by affection. Whatever alchemy secured the group's reputation in the first place was mostly absent from a performance that betrayed little real passion, besides Ian Brown's obvious enjoyment in getting to play on the main stage for once. It was left to Swedish post-hardcore band Refused to demonstrate how this reunion stuff should be done, in a show that was everything the Roses weren't: fierce, committed, and delivered with the conviction of people who actually have something to prove. When hip-swiveling frontman Dennis Lyxzén declared that his group's music was just as relevant in 2012 as in the '90s, it was hard to argue.

Reunions aside, this was also a good year for old-timers. There were main stage sets from Ray Davies and Toots and the Maytals, the latter earning a field's worth of new fans with their cover of 'Take Me Home, Country Roads'; Elvin Bishop and octogenarian reggae guitarist Ernest Ranglin appeared elsewhere. Best of all was Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy, finally making it to the festival after a last-minute cancellation in 2011. It was worth the wait: the guitarist may have been a couple of days shy of his 76th birthday when he took to the Orange Court stage, but he played with such flair – even peeling off Hendrix riffs using a towel in place of a plectrum - that you'd have thought he was a few decades younger.

By far the hardest working band of the weekend, Onda Vaga performed a total of eight (or was it nine?) times, bringing their shaggy acoustic jams and five-part vocal harmonies to venues ranging from the hangar-like Red Marquee to the festival campsite. It's lesser-known groups such as this bunch who make you appreciate quite how much Fuji has sprawled over the years, squeezing extra stages into obscure corners of the site. Some of this year's greatest pleasures were to found in those nooks – which in Onda Vaga's case included stage-diving at the normally sedate Gypsy Avalon, and a Naeba Shokudo stage invasion by veteran folk singer Tokiko Kato, who was either very drunk or very, very happy. Maybe both.

Equally memorable, albeit in a very different way, was the troupe of Sikh martial artists/extreme stuntmen who performed three nightly sets in the after-hours Palace Arena. Bir Khalsa Dal recently set a new world record by smashing 59 coconuts on their heads in the space of a minute, and their performances here didn't disappoint in their sheer barminess. Whether breaking coke cans with their fists, chomping up striplights or smashing each other in the chests with hammers – conducting each feat in breakneck, thirty-second segments – they were the only act of the fest who seemed genuinely superhuman.

The weather suited some performers particularly well. It's hard to imagine Seun Kuti & Egypt 80's marathon two-hour set on the main stage being quite such a triumph if it hadn't been conducted in blazing sunshine. Nor, perhaps, would The Very Best's blend of ebullient Afropop and colossally bass-heavy club music have sounded quite so glorious had it been drizzling throughout. Even Purity Ring benefitted: though the visual impact of their elaborate lighting rig was rather wasted in a mid-afternoon slot, the Canadian duo's eldritch hypno-pop sat perfectly with the sultry atmosphere outside, while their on-stage demeanour – like a pair of children immersed in their own dream world – only added to the allure.

The group weren't the only nominally electronic act to deliver a memorable performance this year. James Blake had seemed a jarring choice of headliner for Fuji's White Stage – his frigid, digital anti-soul is hardly the ideal soundtrack for a boozy Friday night – yet his set worked surprisingly well, helped by a crisp sound mix that gave the sub-bass an enveloping, cheek-juddering intensity. If his DJ turn in the Red Marquee later on that night wasn't quite so engrossing, that was partly because Factory Floor's sensory overload had left him with an impossible act to follow – and The Field's euphoric performance an hour later was nigh-on perfect.

Current Radiohead tour mates Caribou were another highlight. Dan Snaith's one-time solo project has evolved into a quartet who strike an immaculate balance between man and machine, like Battles without all the proggy cleverness. It was inspiring stuff, and Macbook-wielding rockers Sakanaction felt a little undernourished when they came on afterwards and started playing to a pre-recorded backing track.

Making an impression was never going to be a problem for Canuck hardcore punks Fucked Up. Bearish singer Damian Abraham had his shirt off within the first minute, and spent most of the rest of the set scrumming with the crowd, who festooned him with hats, sunglasses and even a rather fetching flower bouquet. The security guards tasked with shielding the man from harm were rewarded with big hugs each time he returned to the stage side of the barrier: they'd earned it.

Gossip singer Beth Ditto didn't reveal quite as much flesh, though she stripped to an undershirt at the end of the band's set in order to gift her – by then rather sweaty – dress to a member of the audience. 'Cho atsui,' the hefty chanteuse declared earlier on, yet if the heat appeared to have sapped some of her energy, it didn't affect her vocals one jot; even the group's iffy newer material sounded pretty damn fiery here.

Jack White kept his outfit on – specifically, a light blue suit and a plastering of white face paint that made him look like a cross between Dark Shadows Johnny Depp and late period Michael Jackson. He sounded better than either, thankfully, and his all-female backing band were so tight that even the kick drum pedal breaking in the first song couldn't throw them off. In a weekend of wonderfully varied music, it was a reminder that sometimes Fuji is at its best when it simply rocks.

Photo gallery: Fuji Rock Festival ’12
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By James Hadfield
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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