Show Report: ATARASHII GAKKO! U.S. Debut at Head in the Clouds

It has been a rough couple of years since COVID curtailed two of my favorite past-times (travel and live music) and my absolute favorite thing (traveling to see live music). This past weekend’s trip to Los Angeles for the U.S. debut of ATARASHII GAKKO! at the Head in the Clouds festival was both my first trip and my first music festival in over two years.  

So many things have changed!!

Not only is travel and the festival-going experience itself radically different from the pre-COVID era, I realized that the nature of these show reports also needs to evolve since the last time I wrote one up. The recent ubiquity of concert livestreams (perhaps the only positive outcomes of the global pandemic) means that most of you readers who were interested in seeing the show have already done so via Amazon, Twitch or a bootleg upload on YouTube. This relieves me of my pre-COVID responsibility of composing a written portrait of the show itself, so I’ll focus on the elements of the festival experience that didn’t get captured on video (including a surprise close encounter with AG! themselves: READ ON!).  

Head in the Clouds Music and Art Festival: Day One

ATARASHII GAKKO’s set on the main stage kicked off the whole festival, so my Day One goal was to show up as early as possible in the hopes of getting a spot on the barrier despite holding a GA ticket. I felt immediately stymied as the shuttles for the venue started running about 30 minutes late. Fortunately, this turned out to be a blessing as the waiting area for the busses was in the shade whereas the lines to get into the venue were formed on the asphalt of the Rose Bowl parking lot. The tardiness of the shuttles actually saved us all a half-hour of standing in the full sun which, even on a nice California day with temperatures in the 70s can be brutal.  As we stood there, my hopes of snagging a spot in the front row were virtually dashed as I watched a line of about 1,000 VIP ticket holders file into the venue a full hour before the GA gates opened. 

Festivals in the time of COVID involve additional protocols, so we attendees had three gates to make it through to get onto the festival grounds. For entry to Head in the Clouds, 88Rising required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, so the first line of gates was to check everyone’s status in regards to these standards. We could pre-register our vax status via an app for faster access through special lanes, or show vax or testing documentation for a manual check through slower-moving gates. For those who love to procrastinate, they even had COVID testing available onsite. 

Once through, they scanned our wristbands for entry through the second set of gates, and then it was on to security screening. The Head in the Clouds website didn’t have any information regarding what kinds or sizes of bags would be allowed into the festival, so most people showed up on day one carrying the clear, plastic bags and backpacks that a lot of festivals require these days. However, the security staff relied on metal detectors and didn’t do any day-one bag checks that I saw. This explains how AG! fans were able to smuggle whole pineapples into the venue.

Note: With the lack of bag checks, most people left the transparent satchels at home on day two and showed up carrying their Fjällräven Kånken and designer bags.

I was one of the first couple hundred general admission attendees to make it through all three gates and started the brisk hike to the far end of the festival grounds where the main stage was erected. As I reached the field holding the main stage, I noticed the walkway jutting out into the audience. At that point, the VIP crowd up against the runaway was only about one deep, but I headed for the stage instead. I figured that AG!’s four-person choreographies would not be conducive to working the runway much (an assumption that proved correct) and took a spot about three deep behind the barrier on the left side of the stage. 

ATARASHII GAKKO’s U.S. debut performance was nothing short of awesome. I saw some comments later from folks watching the livestream who thought the audience was a bit cold, but I can report that the crowd surrounding me close to the stage was hyped and there for ATARASHII GAKKO!

「  MECHA MECHA KIMOCHII~!」

MIZYU, RIN and KANON were superb and SUZUKA in particular was utterly fearless, stalking the main stage like she owned it. They definitely proved that they deserved to be there. I was especially happy that they opened the show with three of the best tracks from Wakage Gaitaru (their modern classic which made our Top 50 Albums list). I also found the transition via their Beastie Boys cover/re-interpretation of “Intergalactic” to their more recent, hip-hop-flavored tracks to be a genius move, making for an entirely cohesive set-list.

After ATARASHII GAKKO’s  set, I met up with Friend of Homicidols, Monsterpanda. We caught a few more acts, found a late lunch at one of the 100-or-so food vendors, and then stood in the merch line for two hours to purchase an AG! t-shirt and a pair of their signature socks (I also grabbed a Linda Lindas hoodie as, by the time we got to the front of the merch line, the sun had set and the temperature was dropping into the low 50s). I was pretty psyched to get the socks. Historically, they have been pretty tough to get a hold of from overseas as they typically sell out in a few hours whenever they are available on AG!’s Japanese merch site. These were evidently a newer version as they had the 88 Rising logo in the little blue circle on the back. “What a score! Two hours well spent”, I thought until I later learned that the socks and t-shirt are now available through Amazon.

Head in the Clouds Music and Art Festival: Day Two

Next to ATARASHII GAKKO!, the Head in the Clouds artist I was most looking forward to see was The Linda Lindas who were taking the stage early on Day Two. Young as they are, The Linda Lindas effectively channel a style of Ramones-meets-the-Go Gos punk in a kind of joyous fury. I find them pretty awesome. Plus they scored bonus points during their set at HITC as Bass/Vocalist Eloise was positively rocking old school AG! Socks.

If you look closely, you will notice that hers don’t have the 88 rising logo in the blue circle, so those are a vintage, not-available-via-Amazon, real-deal pair. Definite old-school cool.

A few minutes after their set, we left our spot on the stage barrier to grab lunch and noticed that The Linda Lindas were milling around in front of the stage taking pictures with some people. Mila, the Linda Linda’s drummer was standing in front of us, set list in hand, and we asked if it was okay if we took pictures too. She said, “Yes.” In hindsight, it may not have been entirely fair to accept the word of their youngest member as blanket permission, but once we noticed who The Linda Lindas were mingling with, that technicality was far from our minds. After a double-take, we realized that the people gathered around The Linda Lindas weren’t fans, but an out-of-uniform ATARASHII GAKKO!

In addition to the surprise appearance, it was awesome to see that the two groups appear to have an affinity and affection for each other. It seems that they also share a connection via Money Mark: AG!’s most recent creative partner and producer has also worked and performed with The Linda Lindas (and is wearing their t-shirt during AG!’s “First Time in LA Memory Essay” video).

After that encounter, we grabbed some food and caught a few more sets (including Seori, whose voice is a miracle) but knew that the highlights of the Head in the Clouds festival were behind us. Altogether, it was a great weekend. 88Rising put together an incredibly diverse lineup during trying times and pulled it all off with no noticeable hitches. For their part, ATARASHII GAKKO! proved that they can command a main festival stage and audience. Hopefully they gained a lot of new fans and, if they return next year, will claim a spot a bit deeper in the lineup. 

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