Naturally it was with a high degree of skepticism that the Radar greeted an announcement that the InMusic Magazine (formerly Rolling Stone China) crew were organizing a music festival. The first document we saw had Lou Reed and Tricky as headliners.
In China, most events of this scale are announced and then never happen. We expected this would be the same, particularly given that InMusic can barely publish a monthly magazine, no matter organize a multi-day, multi-stage festival with international caliber acts. Yet, being a supporter of the need for more successful festival events in China we were hopeful.
As the days approached it became clear that the festival was actually going forward and so with curious anticipation we secured our tickets, packed our tent and headed out of Beijing. It was a blustery, rainy morning and we wondered if we would make it there in the advertised 2 1/2 hours. We had already heard through the grapevine that hopes for lush green grass laced with wildflowers was wishful thinking (and marketing!) on the part of the organizers. In fact, ZhangBei Festival (张北) was cheekily changed post event to ZangBei Festival (脏北), literally the “Dirty” Festival.
After 4 1/2 hours weaving through heavy traffic and maneuvering past lorries belching black fumes, we pulled into the festival grounds – a vast open plain of dry, brittle stubble. Despite the lack of grass, the sun was shining, the PA was singing and we had a real, live music festival on our hands. Tents pitched, BBQ smoking, people dancing and a Chinese rent-an-army wandering around looking slightly dazed and confused.
It was a rather simple affair. The main (and second) stages were missing roofs – the organizers were obviously not expecting rain (a deficit of which had already led to the lack of green grass). This was possibly an unfortunate oversight, given that it did rain on Sunday, delaying Tricky to a 1 AM start.
The festival was two hours behind schedule from the start and never managed to catch up through myriads of technical problems (mostly issues with the stage monitors, from what we could tell). Thus it was never clear to festival goers who was next on the schedule and what time they would be playing. The electronic stage particularly suffered. Despite an advertised 4:30 PM start time, the first DJ was never on until around 9 PM. The advertised VJs never materialized (neither did any video screens) and the crowds never reached more than a few stragglers wandering by and a core crew of 15-20 ravers. The Taiwanese acts (Wangfu and Tizzy Bac) that we had been looking forward to were also pulled from the line-up, their performance permits having been denied (T&iwanese indy-pendance anyone?).
But not to dwell on the negatives (which it seems most Chinese internet reports have), we must declare that everyone was privileged to see (and hopefully enjoy!) some great music. What this festival did, and what it should be congratulated for, is giving another opportunity for local acts to make the big step up and perform on a proper stage in front of a larger than life crowd. Those opportunities are few and far between and are absolutely crucial to the development of our bands and of our scene.
The production on both main stages was much better than we have seen at any MIDI festival in 10 years (except for the lighting in 2006 which was exceptional) or Modern Sky offering. A large crystal-clear LED wall adorned the main stage, the sound was generally well-mixed – with the Pet Conspiracy show on Saturday night being a stand-out.
The most pleasant discovery however was seeing the maturation of a number of bands – who put on amazing sets and really took command of their stages. To name a few stand-outs, the aforementioned Pet Conspiracy was certainly a festival highlight, Queen Sea Big Shark played a tight, impassioned and fun show; the new “discovery” (for me anyway) of the indie pop/dance band from Chengdu called Mosaic (whose frontman is never without his trademark red jeans, apparently); solid post-rock from Dalian’s Wangwen was a perfect sunset space-out and Re-Tros, once again, proved they are one of the best bands around. However, the best set we were privy to came from one of the international acts – Little Dragon from Sweden, fronted by Jose Gonzalez’ girlfriend Yukimi, who sang and danced with such grace and style and passion that we may have fallen in love (sorry, Jose…). Oddly enough, none of the headliners was very satisfying. We like Xu Wei and have seen him a number of times but on Friday night he was rather lackluster and performed a very abbreviated set. The Saturday headliner was Taiwanese pop folk rock act Zhang Xuan, whose 45 minute soundcheck with out-of-tune guitar and the PA turned on (!!) drove us away before she even started.
Facing a long drive back to Beijing and rain showers at noon on Sunday, we decided to forgo the last day of the festival so we missed all of Sunday’s acts including the main headliner Tricky. Reports from friends say that he topped Zhang Xuan with a 1 1/2 soundcheck before his set and then, with the last bus back to Beijing already departed, playing an average,poorly mixed set to a small, cold crowd of less than a thousand. we are glad we left early…although we did hear that Shan Ren were incredible and brought the crowd to tears.
<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/splitchina/3814302684/” title=”IMG_3184 by Split China, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3470/3814302684_19abfee6a5_o.jpg” width=”580″ height=”360″ alt=”IMG_3184″ /></a>
Overall, we must commend the organizers for pulling it off in a decent, if far from perfect, fashion. They should certainly be a bit more humble post-event than the accolades of amazingness that they are currently giving themselves on their Sina microsite (there were not 100,000 people there; maybe 5-6000 per day) And sure, the critics are right in that the restroom facilities were miles away, the food selection was minimal (the pizza quite tasty though) and the site a dirty dustbowl rather than a romantic grassland but hey, this is a first festival effort on their part and they got a lot of it right. Despite the complaints we hear coming from the bands about how they were treated – the music was the highlight. It shone, the bands shone and that it the reason for a music festival in the first place.