China Music Radar has just finished 3 days of Beijing festival-ing, visiting the two festivals running concurrently in Beijing over the week-long Golden Week for China national day.
Modern Sky Festival and Inter City Music Festival both kicked-off on Saturday with Modern Sky favoring a solid indie line-up (Blonde Redhead, Camera Obscura and others featuring alongside popular Taiwanese indie artists Zhang Xuan and Joanna Wang) while Inter City went with a more mainstream line-up of Mandarin pop-rock artists (Qi Qin, Zheng Jun and Paul Wong as headliners over 3 days).
We visited Modern Sky on an sunny but then blustery, chilly and briefly rainy Saturday. The main attraction turned out to be the DIY market where everyone was scouring the goods for something warm to wear. With a mix of four stages the festival got off to a rocky start with none of the acts putting on very inspired performances, IOHO. Sound Fragment played a decent set despite the rain followed by Camera Obscura on the main stage, who despite having all their own gear confiscated by China Customs, managed to turn in a very touching but short performance. Queen Sea Big Shark followed with a disappointing and listless set which resulted in our early exit to find warmth and home. The headliner, The Big Pink, apparently had multiple technical problems and played a truncated set of 5-6 songs before giving up as well.
A performance at the Modern Sky Music festival
Sunday led us to Chaoyang Park and Inter City Music Festival. We arrived for the oddly programmed 3 PM slot for …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, only to discover that the first scheduled band of the day, Mix Market, from Japan had been cancelled in the wake of the recent China-Japan tensions and Trail of Dead’s start time had moved up, so we only caught the last song. The only shame was the slim crowd, for what was probably the best band to play at either of the festivals. Peak attendance during the day was probably no more than 2000. When we talked with festival organizers, Zeng Yu and Zhong Sheng later in the day about the slim turn-out they were discouraged and incredulous, thinking that they had put together a compelling enough line-up to attract a crowd different than that of Modern Sky. Their sponsors Toyota and Oakley must have wished so too. Most of the other acts in the festival that day were lackluster or a bit too contrived, including the Brooklyn-based collective Men (who although seemed somewhat interesting, failed to capture our imagination) and throw-back Mainland rock star Zheng Jun, who complained of having a cold. The rock-rap group CMCB had the strongest crowd reaction of the day (and perhaps were the main draw at the festival). (Ex?)-hardcore-band Miserable Faith played a solid set of folk-influenced rock, apparently having taken a turn away from hardcore on their latest album and live performances. The performances on the festival’s second stage were all very energetic young bands, aptly given a chance to perform on a slightly bigger stage than normal.
A performance at Beijing’s Inter City Music Festival
Meanwhile at Modern Sky, reports from associates indicated another strong turn-out, particularly as many fans were there to see ex-Suede frontman Brett Anderson who, it was promised by the organizers would be singing a collection of Suede songs especially for the Modern Sky Festival. Sadly, they were all disappointed when he did not sing a single Suede tune. It was not the only trouble of the day, as the festival also tarried beyond curfew and we all know what happens when you break curfew…
Monday came with renewed vigor and a sense of hope that the final day of festivals might bring something memorable and redeeming. The weather was crisp and clear and with a warm sun on our backs we arrived early to catch the first act of the day on the Sky Stage – Youth, who although have been around for 10 years still played like the college band they started out as. But we were looking forward to the first act of the day on the main stage – Taiwanese band Go Chic, whose front-woman Ariel Zheng turned out to be the most engaged and electrifying performer at the festival. The band’s version of electro was tight and fresh. Their album is not nearly as good as their live performance, but keep an eye out for this band. Go Chic were followed by another favorite of ours, Omnipotent Youth Hotel, a veteran Chinese band from Shijiazhuang who play mature and developed prog rock. With hearts still beating warm and slow, we moved from stage to stage (which all suffered from serious noise bleed) throughout the afternoon stopping briefly by the Converse tent to grab free beers and visit our friends there and watch a little skateboarding competition, enjoying fresh cocktails at the Absolut tent and staring in slight disbelief at the Jagermeister blow-up funhouse bar which visually dominated the site. We skipped the final sponsor tent (Dell Computer) however, as it seemed completely displaced and abandoned with one solitary figure hunched over playing a computer game. Our day ended with New Pants’ typically fun and whimsical set followed by a few songs of festival-closer Blonde Redhead’s beautiful droning to a subdued hipster crowd.
Overall, it has become clear that Modern Sky have built a strong festival with a dedicated crowd. They seem to improve ever so slightly year on year with crowd-oriented services – there were literally no queues at the festival entrance this year as in previous years, etc. Reports from behind the scenes tell a different story however – chaotic backstage, lack of catering for the bands and the typical details seemingly left behind by most China festival organizers. To the contrary, Inter City seemed rather well organized on all accounts, although perhaps there is a direct proportion of chaos to number of stages and the size of attendance…another study for another time. It also seems possible to draw the conclusion that the concert-going or music-festival attending crowd in Beijing does not run deep enough to populate two festivals over the same weekend, unless perhaps the festival brand (ala MIDI) and/or line-up is strong enough. For lack of a really exciting headliner or two, Inter City suffered the consequences.
However, for this year, again as every year it is nice to get out of the office and hear some live music in a park, observe those wanting to be observed. And for better or worse, we must congratulate our colleagues who have the guts and tenacity to put on events like this in this our beloved China…