NAEBA (TR) – At the 18th Fuji Rock Festival, some things changed — Kanye West bailed, the rain stayed away — but others remained the same: William McNeil once again supplied plenty of over-the-top erotic entertainment.
McNeil made his ninth appearance at Fuji Rock as the drummer and singer in Big Willie’s Burlesque Fuji Revue, a tongue-in-cheek mix of jazz, rock and burlesque performances.
Usually appearing at the Café de Paris stage, the bald and somewhat portly showman tries to make the hike to the festival’s most remote venue at the Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture well worth the trip.
“I always do a different show,” said McNeil, who goes by “Big Willie,” after his set on Saturday afternoon. “It is always kind of sexy and fun.”
Over Fuji Rock’s three-day run last week, most of the 102,000 fans who passed through the festival’s gates — a drop a few thousand from last year — came to see headlining acts like Franz Ferdinand, but McNeil and his cohorts can say that they really got the joint jumping.
In one routine, dancer Carolina Cerisola strut out before the audience wearing a black hat, stockings and brassiere. Mouth often agape, McNeil toyed with the crowd by hitting his drum kit in rhythm with the suggestive gyrations of the performer from Argentina.
“I don’t know if I’ve got the sexiest show,” said McNeil, a regular player in clubs in Los Angeles. “Since I can’t watch the other acts, I’ll say I have one of the sexiest.”
For the closer, the four dancers donned colorful wigs and frilly skirts. After some hip shaking in front, they surrounded the drum kit, causing McNeil’s eyes to nearly leap out of their sockets, much to the delight of the boisterous audience.
“The fans here are more genuine,” said McNeil, who has been in the music business for three decades. “They’re less jaded, particularly the fans here at the festival. They’re very genuine and very enthusiastic. Whereas, you play in L.A. or New York or London, people are really jaded. Everyone’s on their phone.”
With Fuji Rock being Japan’s premier event on the festival circuit, its extensive lineup of more than 200 artists is usually highlighted by veteran acts, but at the same time emerging musicians are not ignored.
For example, the Rookie A Go-Go stage, which is supported by Strummerville, a charity arranged by the family and friends of Joe Strummer, the former frontman of The Clash, features new bands from Japan. The concept is important to McNeil.
“I used to play with Joe Strummer and the Latino Rockabilly War when I used to live in London in ’88,” said McNeil, who paid tribute to Strummer with a cover of “Brand New Cadillac” near the end of the set. “So that is that connection. He used to always come here to Fuji.”
As with most years, this year’s Fuji Rock will likely be remembered for the overall positive vibe of the crowd, though the absence of a downpour or possibly the confetti and streamers unleashed by the Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire during their sets, which likely had most in attendance rendering West’s cancellation in April as a distant memory, could be candidates for second place.
The fans will likely draw McNeil back again for a tenth trip.
“They really like simple things, like wave your hands in the air or clap,” he said of the Japanese fans. “They love audience participation. I can really ham it up here. I can make the faces, do the shtick because the Japanese get that humor.”