(Author’s note: summer vacation will be over by the time you read this, but the epic finale to it all was the Summer Sonic 2015 music festival in Osaka. Tickets weren’t cheap but I opted to go for both days as I was desperate for some decent live music and burning with curiosity as to how it would compare with British festivals. Read on if you dare.)
Today is not the best day for me to be attending a music festival. I am hungover from a night out in Tokyo and the combination of transit to Osaka and non-stop rushing hasn’t put me in the best of spirits, plus the only artist playing today who I have even a vague interest in is Pharrell Williams. Proceedings today officially kicked off at 11am but there was no way on God’s green earth I could possibly get there that early. So here I am, waiting for the shuttle bus to ferry me to my destination. I feel nearly overwhelmed with apathy. I’d much rather be wandering around hobby shops downtown and reading my book in cafes. Why exactly did I come here again?
One hour later and I’m onsite. I’ve done a quick reconnaissance of my surroundings and discovered that the only beer they appear to have on sale is Budweiser. Presumably this is to discourage people from drunken troublemaking by selling the shittest beer commercially available, thereby discouraging them consuming it in large quantities. I’ve also discovered that apart from watching bands and walking around a lot there is almost nothing else to do here. I am surrounded by young, excited Japanese people. Ninety per cent of them have small towels around their necks, which reminds me of that line from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy about always knowing where your towel is. I meet up with my friend Anna-Lisa, who just watched some K-pop band reduce a mostly female audience to tears and lust. She’s a few minutes late to meet me because she got caught up in a mass swell of fans who saw the tour bus leaving and chased after it a la A Hard Day’s Night. I wished I had seen this. Anna-Lisa says she wants to go and see Imagine Dragons (whoever they are) so we do that.
Turns out Imagine Dragons are a pop band from Las Vegas. Every single one of their songs sounds like it belongs in a smartphone commercial and their singer resembles a Swedish barista. At one point he takes his top off and the crowd (mostly female) goes nuts. By this point I am so underwhelmed by my overall festival experience that I am desperate for a beer, even if it’s fucking Budweiser, so I buy one. I’m not even one sip in and immediately regret my decision. The next five minutes are spent resentfully drinking my beer, watching Imagine Dragons and hating myself. This isn’t going well.
Pharrell Williams is on soon but we have some time to kill so Anna-Lisa and I go for a stroll about the place. As expected, the festival site is incredibly clean and well-kept. Key to this are the punters, who at all times follow the cultural norm in Japan of Not Dumping Your Shit Everywhere. They’re so compliant and responsible that at the recycling point they actually take time to peel the labels of their plastic bottles and put them in separate bins. I am astonished. In the UK they practically leave dead bodies for the staff to clean up afterwards. And while this festival may be a tad sterile by UK standards, I can’t help but notice how upbeat and civilised everything feels. Everyone is pleased to be here and wants to have the best time possible. And then we find a stall which sells beer that isn’t Budweiser. I’m saved! I buy myself a half-pint of Asahi and sit on a curb next to my friend, watching the world go by. I browse the festival program some more and discover that Clean Bandit are playing, as is D’Angelo and The Vanguard. Why didn’t I spot them before? Things are looking up.
Pharrell Williams takes to the stage (the DJ played Rick James not long beforehand, another good omen). He is wearing a normal-sized hat and his t-shirt is tucked into his trousers, and his backing dancers are all really hot and good at pulling shapes. It’s amusing enough and is a nice way to get into the spirit of things but I’m craving more excitement. Clean Bandit are on soon so I head over to the Sonic stage to check them out and they turn out to be enormous fun. All their songs sound like the best dance anthems of the early 90s. One of the singers looks like Daenerys Targaryen and the lead vocalist is some sort of divine urban angel in a flowing white gown. Her voice is so magnificent it could stop an earthquake. At one point she greets the crowd and asks them how they are. Their agreeable, not-too-carried-away cheering prompts her to smile and laugh. “You’re so polite, it’s hilarious” she proclaims, before the band starts up again. Some dude onstage is furiously shredding violin. The entire crowd is having it and so am I; hands in the air, mass whooping, all the good stuff.
Anna-Lisa texts me and it turns out she’s at the same stage. We meet up and agree that Clean Bandit are goddamn awesome and we are spurred onwards by a massive surge of positivity. We decide to head back to the main stage to see what’s up. En route I catch 20 minutes of D’Angelo and The Vanguard, who are incredible. D’Angelo himself is dressed like some sort of RNB version of Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and is playing a song that sounds like a cross between Prince and Nirvana. I text a friend of mine in the UK who is a huge fan and tell her she would love this. Crying emojis fly back and forth.
Turns out the mean headliner for day one is Zedd. I have absolutely no idea who or what this is, but I soon find out. It turns out that Zedd is a young man who plies his trade in EDM and specialises in anthemic stadium rave. He is clearly hot shit in Japan as an enormous crowd has come to see him do his thing. Once upon a time I would have been deeply dismissive of an artist like Zedd, who appears to be about 17 and is pressing buttons on a laptop while a spectacular light show erupts all around him. but the surge of positive vibes earlier from Clean Bandit have washed away any traces of cynicism that I once had. Everyone is dancing, regardless of how close to the stage they are. It suddenly strikes me that there is no guile to this crowd. They’re not obsessed with looking cool or getting off their tits on various substances, they simply want to enjoy themselves. Their ego-free abandon is infectious and I begin nodding along to Zedd. All his songs sound the same but are intensely euphoric and heartfelt.
It occurs to me that I have been constricting myself for months and haven’t danced properly for a very long time. Every single person around me is letting their hair down and, unlike UK festivals, they don’t need an avalanche of booze and drugs. Within moments, I am dancing with abandon and it feels incredible. And then Zedd drops a rave version of the theme from The Legend Of Zelda. I am rendered utterly speechless. The part of my brain that would normally need the aforementioned booze or drugs in order to bring the joy out is suddenly flipped open. I began leaping around with total and absolute joy. I don’t care how I look, this is the most positivity I have experienced in months. Suddenly, a tall, pretty Japanese girl asks me to dance with her. Out of nowhere I am having the best night of my life. Zedd finishes his set. Fireworks explode in the sky over the festival site. The crowd dutifully makes its away home, as do I, and I leave the grounds feeling elated.
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