From The Photo Editor

Matthew HelminskiEver been dragged to a concert? Totally out of place, you somehow had an amazing experience simply because someone pushed you beyond your comfort zone. I had a more extreme experience this summer, but it illustrates the joys of exploring the vast world of live music.

I only recently heard of Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival, but I was in Japan and knew I had to go. Hundreds of kilometers from Tokyo (and, oddly, Mount Fuji), this is not an urban music event, but is is huge. This year a record 115,000 people gathered in mountain forests to hear 200-plus bands play over three days.

I grew up in a small Vermont town, and large crowds still feel strange to me. Being out under the trees with 115,000 people speaking Japanese in a forest that reminded me of home was surreal. On side routes between stages, the crowds disappeared, everything became quiet, and I could easily imagine wandering the woods where I grew up. Then suddenly I’d be back in the crowd again, heading towards the next big show.

The range of music at Fuji is huge. It became a challenge to decide what band to see, and I often caught half a set by one band and headed off to catch the end of another. The many Japanese bands included everything from electronica masters Denki Groove and the inevitable J-pop stars to kick-ass Japanese funk and traditional Kodo drumming. Scottish band Franz Ferdinand headlined the first night and many other European and American bands followed. I missed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs because I was on the opposite side of the festival.

I won’t forget listening to Franz Ferdinand and Red Hot Chili Peppers with a screaming mass of 15,000-plus Japanese fans. Other highlights were Martha Wainwright and the North Mississippi Allstars. Martha played a great set, full of the honest emotion for which she is famous… Cody Dickinson’s washboard solo during the North Mississippi Allstars show was probably the best moment of the festival. Like many other acts, these bands connected with their audiences in a powerful way and proved once again why live music is so important.

Summer here means rain. I slogged along muddy paths moving from stage to stage, but, prepared with good shoes and a solid raincoat, it was just another memorable part of the Fuji experience.

The food was surprising. Local produce and preparations were very popular, but options included Thai and Indian curries, Turkish kebabs, great vegetarian fare, even Nathan’s hot dogs… the variety seemed endless. The biggest challenge was ordering from menus almost entirely in Japanese, but everyone was happy to help out.

I can’t forget those other essential elements: alcohol and souvenirs. Stalls sold just sake, dozens of different brands. It made the Heineken booth seem pretty dull. Music lovers everywhere enjoy letting everyone know what they love, and the lines for band T-shirts and other official gear were the longest at the festival. Yes, even longer than the lines for Porta-Potties.

So if you ever have a chance, go to Fuji Rock: it’s an unforgettable experience. But the larger picture is this: as the cold weather arrives and you find yourself remembering the great live music you experienced this summer, get an early start on your plans for 2007. Is there a band you’ve never heard live? Need an excuse to search for the best BBQ in the country? Got a friend who needs to hear something new? Go. And remember—don’t be afraid to get your feet wet. E

—Matthew Helminski

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