Recap: Summer Sonic Celebrates 20th Anniversary With Gala Fest

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Blackpink perform at Sahara Tent during the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 19, 2019 in Indio, Calif. 

Summer Sonic, one of Japan’s two leading international summer music festivals, celebrated its landmark 20th anniversary in the same way it heralded its 10th, by adding a third day to its usual two-day lineup.

The fest is held simultaneously near Tokyo and in Osaka, the former at Zozo Marine Stadium and Makuhari Messe, and the latter at Osaka Maishima Sonic Park. This year the proceedings took place on August 16-18 and the lineup was studded with major headliners and popular acts from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Chainsmokers to Weezer, Baby Metal, Disclosure and K-pop act Blackpink. All three days of Tokyo tickets sold out by early July, and Osaka was largely sold out as well.

Promoter Creativeman reported attendance was 350,000 for the three days across both venues, making it the biggest summer music festival in Japan this year. That title usually goes to the Rock in Japan fest, which features exclusively domestic repertoire and regularly hosts 300,000. In addition, Summer Sonic was livestreamed on YouTube for the first time ever.

At first, the weather didn’t cooperate due to a strong typhoon that hit Japan on Thursday, August 15. Creativeman cancelled early afternoon performances at both of Osaka’s outdoor stages and Tokyo’s Beach Stage on Friday. 

Fortunately, festivalgoers were still able to see Friday’s Beach Stage headliner Robert Glasper play a short set in the Zozo Marine Stadium Saturday afternoon. As a pianist and bandleader, Glasper is situated at the convergence point of the hip-hop and jazz worlds—perhaps most famously for his extensive participation on Kendrick Lamar’s critically-lauded To Pimp a Butterfly—and on Saturday he was joined by his Robert Glasper Experiment co-founder Derrick Hodge and Chris Dave. Fronting the group was Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, who performed to an enraptured crowd his hits “Auditorium” and “Umi Says.”

Later Saturday afternoon, the much-anticipated ultra-hip electro rock band Superorganism was able to appear on the beach stage. This was a performance of the ultra-hip; having graduated from the lessons of mainstream giants like Pet Shop Boys and indie legends such as The Magnetic Fields. As various EDM sub-genres like crunk and glitch flowed through the mix, Superorganism’s backing vocalists twisted and gyrated; sometimes in sync, and sometimes doing their own thing. Visually and sonically, this band married the beauty of the 60s, 70s and the 21st century, while lead singer Orono Noguchi fronted it all in her trademark sunglasses-wearing cool detachment. 

Noguchi mixed Japanese and English in her comments to the crowd, unlike the band’s performance at last year’s Fuji Rock Festival where she feigned an inability to speak Japanese. The international group played songs from their eponymously-titled 2018 release, including “It’s all Good,” “Night Time” and “Nai’s March” (before which Noguchi asked her sixth grade teacher to identify himself in the crowd). Just before the end of the set Noguchi announced that the Japanese band Chai (who also performed at the fest) was in the house, and the members of that band then jubilantly danced to the music of their peers stage right. They finished off with “Everybody Wants to be Famous!” and “Something for Your Mind.”

Headlining on Saturday, the Red Chili Peppers performed to a packed stadium. After a short intro jam, they launched into crowd-pleaser “Can’t Stop,” followed by a stacked set that included five songs from their popular 1999 album Californication, alongside other hits like “Dani California,” “Under the Bridge” and “By the Way”. Notably, this set included the song “Hey,” which the band has only played live a few dozen times. Bassist Flea took center stage to exhort audience members to think about their ancestors (the fest is held during the traditional Japanese period to honor one’s forebearer), and to perform a solo rendition of Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done.” The band’s encore featured “Dreams of a Samurai” off their most recent album, before concluding with a high-energy “Give It Away”.

On Sunday, the enormously popular K-pop girl group Blackpink took the Stadium stage and immediately launched into their colossal hit “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du.” As is usual of K-pop, the members of Blackpink danced sensually, with their own styles. Each was dressed in a different costume to reflect her personality—short skirts, exposed shoulders and midriffs, and a stylish hip-hop aesthetic ruled the fashion. Through songs like “Stay,” “Whistle” and “Kill This Love,” the girls took turns singing or rapping over beats, with lyrics in Korean, English and Japanese. The group appeared to be having an equal amount of fun, and they concluded their set with high-energy Japanese versions of “Boombayah” and “As If It’s Your Last.”

Electronic dance music dominated the roster Sunday night, with sets from the Chainsmokers, Zedd, Alan Walker, FKJ, R3HAB, Flume and Disclosure to draw the weekend to a close. Audiences were bombarded with an unending stream of fire, smoke, confetti, high-budget CGI visuals and densely-layered sonic textures and beats. For the Chainsmokers, frontman Drew Taggart exuded energy and stage presence, somehow unfettered by the evening heat, and a thick crowd of dancing fans matched the high-octane performance from start to finish. The setlist included classics like “Closer” and “Something Just Like This” interspersed with tracks from the duo’s upcoming third record World War Joy, including the newest single “Takeaway.” The pair appeared to honor the Peppers with a cover of “Under the Bridge,” but in actuality, they perform the track often.

Festivals 2019