Gone Fes’n—Matsue Style

New Orleans and the distant Japanese city Matsue became sister cities in 1994, but their ties date back to the late 19th century. During that period, influential writer Lafcadio Hearn spent close to a decade working in New Orleans as a journalist before eventually moving to Matsue and becoming a major Japanese literary figure. In 2018, I first visited Matsue and documented the trip in ANTIGRAVITY. In early October, I revisited the city to bash my head to loud music at Shimane Jett Fes (it’s common for Japanese music festivals to use “Fes” instead of “Fest”) and celebrate home at the Matsue New Orleans Festival.

While the sister city relationship is tied to Hearn, the writer is not the only notable creative figure connected to Matsue. Seiji, the leather-clad rocker who has led Guitar Wolf for over three-and-a-half decades, grew up in Matsue. Since then, his band’s eardrum-rupturing rock‘n’roll has taken him across the globe. He even inspired the infamous label Goner Records, which was founded to release Guitar Wolf’s first album before putting out cult classics by the likes of New Orleans’ own Quintron & Miss Pussycat and King Louie Bankston. Since 2017, Seiji has somehow found time between global tours to annually host Shimane Jett Fes, his own Gonerfest-esque festival that brings some of his most beloved Japanese and foreign acts to the quiet hometown that raised one of Japan’s loudest sons.

Thousands of miles from home, the familiar sound of tunes like “Iko Iko” kicked off Jett Fes as the Matsue New Orleans Brass Band, a local group specializing in the sounds of their sister city, played in the parking lot just outside the gates. Leather-bound rockers looked on with great amusement as they waited in line to receive their wristbands. Upon entering the outdoor festival grounds, I was thrown deep into the area’s traditional culture as I stumbled upon a performing arts group staging the slaying of a massive four-headed serpent.

Seiji hosted this year’s opening ceremonies in his signature full black leather outfit. A bright red tee featuring New Orleans rhythm and blues legend Lee Dorsey peeked out from underneath his dark wardrobe as he spoke passionately about his hometown and even welcomed Matsue’s mayor on stage. The mayoral visit was far outshined by a special appearance from Puffy AmiYumi, a duo of Japanese pop stars best known in the U.S. for their tie-ins with Cartoon Network. Puffy, with assistance from the leather-adorned Johnny Pandora as their backing band and Seiji pounding away at a pair of timpanis, played through “That’s The Way It Is” and “Sign of Love” to rapturous response.

Seiji seemed to actively court chaos with the festival’s lineup of crazed rockers, ranging from OG Japanese punks Anarchy to modern-day globetrotters Otoboke Beaver. Engines revved loudly as the Johnny Bravo-esque members of Johnny Pandora made their grandiose return to the main stage by riding their motorcycles through the thick of the crowd. Towards the end of their set, their guitarist ran through the crowd while taking a solo. Their singer, sitting atop his shining chariot in the back, broke into a massive grin as he revved its handlebars to unleash a series of thunderous roars. The guitarist dropped to his knees and continued soloing as the engine rumbled its loud accompaniment.

Johnny Pandora
(Photo by Amy Nguyen)

Gonerfest alums King Brothers navigated the thin line beneath life and death like a hyperactive child playing on a jungle gym. Marya, one of the suit-clad trio’s two guitar-slinging singers, spent most of the set standing on top of us as he commanded we carry him to the furthest reaches of the outdoor auditorium again and again. During the band’s final song, the gray-haired devil crowdsurfed as far out as possible before climbing up the pipes supporting the auditorium’s roofing. He twisted his body to wrap his legs around a pipe and, once hanging upside down above the crowd, belted out a giant “fuck you” to Seiji. The madman then realigned himself on top of the bars, barely managing to balance both of his feet on the thin surface, and made a run for it towards the stage. Only the slim pipe separated him from a massive plunge into the hard concrete below. Suddenly, Marya took the massive leap onto some scaffolding on the stage. Upon landing to massive applause, he rolled up the sleeves of his white dress shirt and danced with the triumphant energy of a man who had just cheated death.

Storied American garage rock vets The Mummies, fresh off of the prior week’s appearance at Gonerfest, lived up to their legacy. The band emerged in their signature tattered white rags, far off in the distance atop the outdoor park’s recreation burial mounds. The four ghouls slowly made their descent down the center aisle towards the stage, high fiving fans along the way as if it were a wrestler’s grand entrance. Once on stage, they repeatedly antagonized the audience while tearing through unhinged classics like “Stronger Than Dirt,” which they dedicated to Seiji. To say that their budget rock was warmly received would be an understatement. One attendee even went so far as to show up in their own homemade Mummy costume, complete with the band’s signature “Fuck you” crudely written on the front.

The Mummies
(Photo by William Archambeault)

For Seiji’s headlining set with Guitar Wolf, Matsue’s hometown hero emerged in a different red leather outfit, accenting it this time with a green Parliament-Funkadelic shirt. He began chugging a beer and leading the crowd in a series of shouts to raise the adrenaline levels to the necessary state for his signature, maximum volume brand of Jett rock‘n’roll. Once properly riled up, Seiji swung his red SG and began bashing away at it, fueling the band’s explosive tunes. During the band’s signature cover of the MC5 rager “Kick Out the Jams,” he reached into the crowd and pulled me on stage, commanding me to play his guitar. Seiji, a master of showmanship, firmly placed his pick in my hand, raised my arm, and then refused to let go. Adrenaline grew deep inside me until I was ready to burst. When Seiji finally loosened his grip, I leapt forward and unleashed a frenzy of jagged power chords. I am not a musician but I didn’t let that stop me. As Seiji crowd surfed and raised hell, I bashed my head against Guitar Wolf’s bassist Gotz and continued to hit power chords as hard as possible. After the set, everyone from local students to old men came up to me, thanking me for the performance. In that moment, I realized what has made Guitar Wolf so endearing to audiences around the world for decades. It is their pure, undiluted attitude and fearlessness to get on any stage and conquer it no matter the odds.

The following day marked the grand return of the Matsue New Orleans Festival, a sister city celebration that hadn’t happened in four years due to the pandemic. Green, purple, and gold decorations popped against the stone walls leading to Matsue Castle. Colorful costumes, including one dressed-up dog, trickled into the castle grounds’ former horse parking area as the day’s program commenced with a series of school band performances. Because my partner Amy and I were the only New Orleanians in attendance this year, a local friend gave me a king costume. I spent much of the day posing for photos with enthusiastic locals.

A Mummy (sans bandages) and his grave-digging wife made an unexpected appearance on the castle grounds. The Mummies may be quite antagonistic on stage but they’re actually pretty nice once you peel away the rough exterior. Over beignets, they recalled a lively appearance at the Ponderosa Stomp that saw them temporarily trapped in their hotel due to a hurricane. As we chatted, the couple expressed their gratitude that what they describe as “a glorified high school art project” has taken them this far across the world.

Matsue’s mayor, also fresh off the Jett Fes spotlight, made an appearance at the New Orleans festival. This time, he played clarinet with a local brass ensemble before gathering all of the day’s performers. Students, professional musicians, the mayor himself, Lafcadio Hearn’s great-grandson Bon Koizumi, and even random attendees armed with their own instruments, came together for a roaring rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Everyone, myself included, began to parade in a large circle as the familiar sounds of home filled the sister city’s air. In past years, the festivities flooded the streets for a proper attempt at a Mardi Gras parade, fittingly named “Little Mardi Gras.” However, this year, the marching was relegated to the grounds beneath Matsue Castle.

In addition to celebrating the sounds and sights of New Orleans, the festival offered some attempts at Crescent City classics. Local spots Green’s Baby and Ipputei showcased their takes on gumbo, including a localized version that incorporated shijimi, a popular type of clam associated with the region. Beignet and chicory coffee spot Peaks Beignet, based in the distant city of Nara, also set up a booth with staff frying up dough fresh for each order.

Chuo Kids Band Club, with the author and partner Amy Nguyen
(Photo by William Archambeault)

Tokyo-based banjo player Tomomitsu Maruyama, a former bandmate of current New Orleans musician Haruka Kikuchi, offered an eclectic mixture of time-honored New Orleans standards and originals during his performance. For most of the set, he was joined by local saxophonist Mika Miyamoto, one of a chosen few from Matsue who were sent to New Orleans on a sister city exchange program in 2014. Koizumi also made a return to the stage. Standing behind a keyboard, he joined the duo for “Danny Boy” and “Amazing Grace,” serving effectively as a two-song summary of his great-grandfather’s adventures in Ireland and the United States before Hearn’s eventual move to Japan.

The Matsue New Orleans Funk Band’s set featured a heavy dose of New Orleans classics like The Meters’ “Cissy Strut,” “Iko Iko” (à la Dr. John), and even Cyril Neville’s early solo single “Gossip.” Before a performance of the iconic “Lady Marmalade,” the group’s singer educated the audience about the tune’s lesser-recognized New Orleans roots. Later, local group Shokutaku Kaigi (Dinner Table Meeting) tore into a mean version of “St. James Infirmary,” during which their trombone player proclaimed “She may search the whole wide world all over, but she’ll never find another trombone player like me” with a ferocity reminiscent of Glen David Andrews.

Matsue New Orleans Funk Band
(Photo by Amy Nguyen)

The Matsue New Orleans Brass Band’s headlining set provided a welcome contrast to their early morning opening slot at Jett Fes the day prior. The group played a diverse selection of sister city-centric tunes ranging from trad jazz staple “Paul Barbarin Second Line” to The Soul Rebels’ upbeat “Let Your Mind Be Free.” Like most brass bands in New Orleans, the Matsue group is no stranger to substituting members, which made the rare appearance of their full nine-piece lineup a welcome surprise. Armed with father-daughter sousaphone players, the band blew their hearts out as they were joined by Maruyama and Miyamoto for songs like “What A Wonderful World” and yet another rendition of “Saints.”

After the festival, I wandered towards the nearby castle, taking in the warm orange glow that engulfed its typically dark exterior as the sunset ushered in dusk. I strolled through a series of child-decorated lanterns, some of which depicted Hearn, a reminder of his continuing grip over the city. Afterwards, I joined the performers for an afterparty and more gumbo. While Matsue’s bonds to New Orleans were birthed out of a mutual appreciation for Hearn’s pioneering work, local residents’ warm receptions showed me that they are the ones who have truly strengthened that bond into something special. I already look forward to returning next year to see how they will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the sister-city relationship, and get my ears blown out by Guitar Wolf yet again.

Top photo: Seiji (Guitar Wolf) with the author; bottom photo by Amy Nguyen

Verified by MonsterInsights