The Beijing festivals: Pinggu, Strawberry and Midi in review

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Music Festival Madness: May Holiday Festival Weekend 2011

Perhaps to make up for a dearth of musical festivities elsewhere, Beijing municipality –  because let’s be honest, most of these festivals were in locations much closer to Hebei than Tiananmen – managed to outdo itself with five major music festivals this May Holiday season, of which your intrepid Radar correspondents attended the “Big Three:” China Music Valley, MIDI, and Strawberry.

The newcomer to scene this year is China Music Valley, which featured a heavy-hitting, Western-music-centric lineup in the wild hinterlands of Pinggu District east of Beijing. Produced by Gehua-LiveNation and funded in large part by various levels of local and municipal governments, it resembled the first year of a festival. The two stages were set up right next to each other, so that performances were staggered between the two all day. Windstorms buffeted the valley venue which functions as a ski resort in the winter months. Day One of the festival featured Avril Lavigne, and she was obviously the main attraction to the festival-goers, approximately 90% of whom were locals. We met 14-year old girls who were dropped off by their parents, metal-and-Avril-loving young gentlemen from Changchun and many, many police and baoan, who ringed the perimeter of the festival grounds like menacing, confused tentpoles.

Logistically, it was so-so. Signage leading up to the grounds at Yuyang International Ski Resort was minimal and oddly unbranded. We saw plenty of “乐谷” signs surrounding the parking lots and shuttle bus stops, but they were the same nondescript traffic signs one finds outside of any car park. There were no signs in English, either. Once inside the park, the landscape did not look promising. A combination of sandstorm-strength winds blowing in from the north and lack of vegetation on the ground made for dusty, muddy conditions that persisted throughout the day. To combat the dust, groundskeepers continuously sprayed down the bare hills with water, which helped with the airborne particles, but also generated a fair amount of unappetizing mud everywhere. But one of the oddest aspects about the festival was that each ticketholder was given an extra tag upon entrance, lettered from A-D, which designated which areas closest to the two stages they could enter. These tags were distributed solely based on time of arrival, so that the early birds scored access to the “A” section (closest to the main stage) while latecomers had to settle for standing room in the “C” and “D” sections (no man’s land). Policemen were strict yet haphazard about enforcing these boundaries; most of the audience did not or chose not to understand the demarcations, which led to a lot of pushing and complaining at the entrances to each section, which were themselves manually controlled by security officials. We managed to talk our way into the “A” section, but through blind luck more than any sort of orderly conversation.

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Sound and light was provided by Gongti and the quality was good with no noise pollution because there was only one performance going on at a time. Highlights from CMV Day One included Beijing favorites Free the Birds, who made the best of an early set time and sparse crowds, and Juliette Lewis & the Licks, who obviously looked like they were enjoying their second visit to China. Feathers seemed to be the theme of the night: Juliette Lewis wore a black feather bolero that resembled a cast-off from the Black Swan costume closet, and Taiwan’s F.I.R. rocked out on a keytar festooned with feathers and rhinestones. CMV suffered from the growing pains associated with any new, large-scale undertaking, but overall, the whole experience could have been a lot worse. We imagine that the festival was an incredibly expensive experiment for the Pinggu local government. It will be interesting if they break the mould and actually come back for more next year.

Sites such as Beijing Daze and, well, ourselves have been following the developments of MIDI quite closely from year to year, and this year’s abrupt change of locale from the traditional Haidian Park to way-the-hell-out-there Jinglangdao Park in Mentougou District raised no shortage of eyebrows. But we at the Radar are happy to report that MIDI pretty much killed it this year with the whole package: ambience, conveniences, sound quality, charitable projects, commitment to the music, and most importantly, the ready availability of cheap, cold beer. Set into an island valley (the park is separated by a small canal) in the middle of the mountains west of Beijing, Jinglangdao is actually a gorgeous location where the mountains surround the park grounds and an old freight train bridge runs behind the main (Tang) stage. The most spread out in terms of surface area, MIDI did not suffer from the noise pollution that plagued Strawberry (again) this year. The extra space also made it a fun little adventure to walk around the vendor and food street behind the main stage, where you could buy anything from squid-on-a-stick to churros to faux-tattoo sleeves to barrettes in the shape of every type of animal ear imaginable. While the Jägermeister tent provided its usual brand of titillation and tackiness in equal measure, Tiger beer pulled off a 360-degree exposure with, dare we say it, aplomb. They provided free-flow, cheap, and chilled beer from morning into evening, low tables and wonderfully puffy cushions to lounge about on, lawn tables and umbrellas for the Asian ladies keeping an eye on their porcelain complexions and these nifty little columns which served as bar tables during the day but magically transformed into blue LED light columns as the sun set.

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2011 Beijing Midi Festival , a set on Flickr.

The music wasn’t terrible, either. From our position in between the Tang and Yen electronic stages, we could hear everything, and it all sounded good. If you went in front of any of the stages, the sound was quite pure, and not quite flattened like at Strawberry (but more on that later). Nanwu, Brain Failure and Mr. Big all managed quite well and I heard good things about SMZB’s performance as well. We stayed for maybe five songs into Mr. Big’s set, and they were somewhat not terrible. The band was obviously excited to be playing in China, had not read the gimlet-eyed derision their initial presence was greeted with, and played an utterly serviceable five songs (none of which were “To Be With You,” to their credit) before the Radar decided we were too cold and too tired to stick around for more. Judging from the audience cam, there were some pretty hardcore Mr. Big fans in attendance. Logistically, even though Jinglangdao is again, practically Hebei, getting there by public transportation (subway then shuttle bus) was almost deceptively simple. We heard some tales of woe of festivalgoers who managed to miss the last shuttle from the subway, however, so the moral of the story is get there early, boys and girls!

Day Three of Music Festival Madness dawned bright and clear just in time for your Radar correspondents, who obviously have the hardest job in the world, to cab over to Tongzhou Canal Park for the finale of Modern Sky’s Strawberry Music Festival. We’d heard about and experienced a lot of the logistical nightmares that plagued Strawberry last year, but the process seems to have been streamlined this time around. Judging from reports from the first two days and our own eyes, getting in the doors did not take overly long, and there was no beer to run out of, so problem solved there. Held in the same venue as last year, Strawberry ran into some of the same problems as last year. Sound pollution between the stages was very apparent at times, and sheer number—there were six stages again this year meant that some, like the School Stage and Electric Stage were relegated to forgotten, dusty corners of the park.

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However, Strawberry felt like it possessed a monopoly on “festival atmosphere.” Whether it was the sheer number of people there, the surfeit of vendors, or simply the gorgeous sunshine, we can’t say. But from the weird souvenirs to the weirder photographs in the “art” tent, the Radar observed everyone there genuinely having a fine time. We wish we could say the same about the music. Or, at least, the sound quality that day. Much like last year, the speakers and system could not hold up to the sounds of the bands playing through them. The same weird barrier was erected in front of the sound booth at the Strawberry Stage that provided an unnecessary barrier between the left and right sides of the grounds and sounds from the Taiwan and Overdrive Stages were a constant all day. Musically speaking, there were definitely standout acts. Newer on the scene, the Ghost Spardac brought the same energy to the Love Stage that they do for all their indoor live shows, and Rustic were obviously in their element playing before them. We caught old Radar friend Huang Jie kicking off the festivities at the Taiwan stage and Hanggai bringing down the house as the sun dipped below the horizon in Tongzhou back on the Love Stage. On the Strawberry Stage, the insufficient sound system diminished the sonic power of Japan’s Mono but Life Journey’s jangly guitar pop fared much better under the circumstances.   The Radar crew, exhausted from three full days of sun and sand, called it an early night at Strawberry and headed back into town, reflecting on the different experiences of each festival and how we’d pull it off this time next year, when Beijing inevitably plays host to eight festivals in three days.

  • DaVolcano

    Nice one! I almost did the same schedule as you and yeah, Midi killed it! As much as I would love to camp out there next year, the attendance would be much better served at Haidian Park. I pray that this move back into the city would affect the beer or I am going to have to sneak it in again, along with a bottle of Jim Beam and Stoli….just like we did at Pinggu Happy DRY Valley this year! Security my ass…..

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