Zhenjiang Midi Sessions

Check out this report on Zhenjiang's Midi Festival from Jon Campbell

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

Jon Campbell is a stalwart of China’s music scene. He is writing a book about Rock in China. It will be published by the good people at Earnshaw Books. First draft is nearly complete according to Jon, so expect to see it adorning the shelves of on-and-offline bookshops by the end of the year. Anyway, we had heard from a few band friends that they were playing across the summer in Zhenjiang at a Midi organized series of events in the town square.

Some bands performing at the Midi Festival sessions at Zhejiang’s town square

We knew that Jon had taken some bands there, so we asked him for a few words. He gave us a few thousand and here it is in all its glory…

Zhenjiang, Jiangsu is a three-thousand year-old, multi-million-resident city you’ve only heard of because Midi put on a festival there in 2009. It is yet another city whose government is trying to boost tourism through music, and, it should be noted, is not the most recent to have done so. Whether music festivals are the key to drawing the tourist hordes that governments like Zhenjiang’s and those of other cities are angling after is beside the point, because these governments believe in the idea enough to throw in the direction of festival/music series some of their budget. And Midi is only one of the beneficiaries of this musical tourism policy.

Prior to 2009, Zhenjiang was known primarily for its vinegar and silkworm research. Until Midi moved down there in 2009, it was not on the rock and roll map. Or the tourist map, for that matter, being, as it is, stuck in the shadow of nearby Nanjing (1 hour by car) and Shanghai (two hours by high-speed train), only two of the many tourist destinations in the region. Hence the desire to attract tourists.

The amazing thing about the Midi move is that Zhenjiang asked Midi to bring their festival down south (also: Beijing’s Haidian Park asked Midi to move the fest in). Which is hard to fathom, but then, it’s even harder to fathom the fact that it seemed to go well enough that Zhenjiang is going to be a regular Midi stop (on an ever-expanding route through the country), and well enough that Midi’s Zhenjiang presence will also extend beyond the National Day holiday: Starting in mid-May until the Oct 1 Midi Fest (officially known as Chang Jiang Midi), Zhenjiang asked Midi to up the ante: ‘How about this,’ they said. ‘A weekly music series, where you set up a big-ass stage in the middle of gentrified town square, fill it with two bands every Saturday. We make it free for our residents to come and check out, and we’ll foot the bill. You in?’

Midi answered the call and the town wins. Zhenjiang and Midi, who already cornered the market on government-sponsored visiting bands, are getting special guests passing through the region for Expo gigs, but also a range of domestic acts as well. Mission, sort of, Accomplished: Zhenjiang is receiving an influx of tourists. It’s just that they’re being paid to visit.

The HiFi Xijindu series is part of Zhenjiang Music Season – “China Mobile Zhenjiang Music Season” to be exact – that includes Chang Jiang Midi and a range of other events. But not Metallica. It was in the Season’s announcement that the rumor of Metallica’s appearance was first mentioned. Midi will tell you that there certainly was a ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have Metallica play at the festival?’ moment in the festival’s planning stages (which festival hasn’t had similar daydreams?). But daydream turned to silliness when someone on the local government’s press-release-writing team thought, ‘What a perfect way to wind up the HiFi Xijindu Series announcement’. In the May release they tossed a quick line in about how the festival will feature different kinds of music, oh, and American band Metallica (LINK). Nobody told Midi that they’d be writing that into the announcement and nobody wondered why a town looking to be put on the map didn’t mention Metallica in the first – and every subsequent – line of the release. That a release would end with a whisper of Metallica appearance and open with a product placement might have clued one in to the veracity of the former, so let’s give them a few points in the PR team’s ‘bad’ column. And though China Mobile’s naming rights may well be worthy of first mention in a press release, there was no sign at the venue of sponsor logos. The only signage was neon, and it advertised the series: “HiFi 西津渡”. Of course, that could be another failure of the PR team, but we’ll go with ‘sponsorship didn’t get in the way’.

While bands get an extra notch on their touring bedpost and municipal officials can rub their bellies and chuckle with glee over the many new visitors to their fine city, it is the citizens of Zhenjiang who win biggest. I’ve seen them show their appreciation first-hand on three occasions (my third will be on Aug 7, actually, and I write this on Aug 3, but I feel safe in predicting good times) and have heard about their appreciation second-hand from all of artists I sent down their way.

In the interest of not only full disclosure, I will mention that I have experienced and worked with and for Midi (and several other festivals) and experienced every side of the stage and organization than one possibly can: performing, sending performers to the festivals, working festival partners, and, for a two-year period, working for Midi. And I’ll also add that my experiences with the organization have run the gamut of all possible emotions, from the excitement of performing to thousands to frustrations over the organization of a kind I wouldn’t wish upon my enemies. I’ve received mixed reports from bands I’ve sent, and from partners. I’ve written glowingly about the festival in the past, but everything I know about and have experienced has since tempered my initial feelings – and made me look at reports on this (and other) festivals through a new lens, a lens that I hope more observers peek through.

But I digress. The point, in short: Midi has been a mixed bag. The other point, in short: Zhenjiang’s HiFi Xijindu series, featuring two bands (sometimes three) every Saturday from mid-May through the end of September is not a mixed bag. It is a rockin good time.

Midi’s challenges in putting on their festivals result from the sheer logistical nightmare involved in an ever-expanding amount of artists, stages, players, partners and audience members. At the festival, it felt like there was less looking after artists than managing the chaos; getting bands onstage and out of the way with the least amount of damage as possible. Not so, Zhenjiang, where the task of getting two bands up and running once a week is less a beast than a cakewalk. regardless, professionalism has greeted all the artists with whom I’ve dealt by a team that has had weekly practice with pickups, drop-offs, soundchecks and shows.

But there are still logistical concerns to deal with, of which the least is not the oppressive heat that settles around the stage, square and city like slime on a Ghostbuster, since there’s not a whole lot you can do except withstand it. It’s hard – and, probably, unfair – to blame the organizers for the weather, so I suppose I’ll let that one slide out of the ‘con’ column like a stick out of the hand of a drummer atop the not insubstantial riser overlooking the top of his bandmates’ head, trying to execute the simple striking of a cymbal while bathed in hot stagelights adding another dozen or so degrees Celsius to the already 40-ish degree range nature thrust upon this city, while the humidity hovers somewhere between 150 and 500%. At 8.30 in the evening. And don’t get me started on soundcheck, when, at around 4pm, the sun is at that absolutely perfect point on the horizon where even from the height of the drum riser, one finds oneself just out of the shade-line of the front of the west-facing, festival-sized stage; two hours prior the stage roof might provide some shelter from the direct heat of the sun – which, one realizes now, at around four thirty, more than ever in any junior high science class, actually is a ball of fire, just like the teachers tried to tell you all those years – but in the late afternoon, when holy-crap hot becomes this is so far past really fucking hot that maybe it’s actually cold, who knows, and why is the ground rushing toward me like that?, the trip from, say the vocal mic at the front of the stage to the guitar amplifier a few metres behind you requires the intake of a bottle of water to replace the fluids lost over the course of the trip. But, again, to be clear: Weather. It’s not Midi’s fault.

The hotel, though, leaves much to be desired, the result of its decades-long decay from its heyday as an Official resort-style hotel. But weather and crappy hotels are two things with which anyone who’s ever been on the road in, with or near a band can attest, one deals. The backstage area, was not, on my second trip, conveniently located, but was a comfortable respite from the heat. If it was Spartan in form, it was not in content: Beer, water and towels were all available, and the WC was next door, as opposed to backstages at other events.

Was the stage the sturdiest upon which this drummer has ever stood upon? No, it was not. Did it, in fact, it wobble a bit when confronted with the weight of a band not in the best shape of their lives? Yes, it did, and that’s not insignificant. But not to the point where any of us were worried – and we have a certified rigger and general production guru-type dude among our ranks, not to mention a show that involves lots of moving around. Was the soundcheck maddeningly slow and tedious? Yes, it was – but soundcheck always is. Did it pay off with a show devoid of the ubiquitous calls from various musicians to the sound desk to tweak the settings (how many gigs have been tarnished by the ‘CAN I HAVE MORE GUITAR IN MY MONITOR?!?!’ of a frustrated guitarist?)? Yes, it did pay off.

How? Here’s what banjo player, bilingual speaker/singer and songwriter Abigail Washburn, veteran of seven years of China shows from Lhasa to Guangzhou, Beijing to Dongguan and many points between, said about her show at HiFi Xijindu:

“This is exactly the kind of show I want to be playing in China!”

Her performance happened to be on one of the few rainy Saturdays – again: Probably not Midi’s fault! – that, while clearing up before showtime, kept the crowd to several hundred (there were upwards of two thousand people crammed into the square on the hot sweaty night Black Cat Bone performed). A crowd, one should add, that likely mistook the band’s soundcheck for their show. “You should have told them that this was just a soundcheck because they wanted to hear more,” one of the stage managers told Washburn. “A lot more would have stayed!”

Which brings us back to the audience.

This is a free show. Which is great, on so many levels, and even more admirable that the municipal government is supporting the series with no hope of seeing ticket revenues offset their costs – costs which include performance fees of a reasonable nature, in-country transportation and accommodations, many of which are not offered to festival bands.

Those who attend free concerts are not the same type that populate Midi’s rock/jazz festivals, or other festivals around the country. These are citizens, who are not, by any stretch, fickle. Which works out well since we’re all familiar with the random booking policy of so many festivals, Midi especially, where ‘avant-garde’ describes some of the booking choices. But: Visiting bands’ schedules being what they are, it’s tough to program the two-band bill in Zhenjiang into a night of music that goes well together. But, again: Who cares. Certainly not the audience.

Exhibit A: Kresten Osgood and Hvad er Klokken, a supertalented group of funky Danish jazz improvisers brought their instrument-changing unpredictable show to Zhenjiang in late June. They inspired, along with the capacity crowd’s dancing, a local couple to tango like they were on tv. Which they may have been – local television cameras dot the square capturing the action, and reporters fill up the front of the stage. At the end of Osgood’s set, after the autograph hounds subsided – Zhenjiangers looooove getting autographs – the crowd’s attention turned to the leather-clad spiked-bracelet longhairs setting up, and presently, started bouncing along to mediocre goth-metal as if it was, oh, say, improvised Danish funk. That there was no difference in the enthusiasm for goth metal and jazz-funk is not, I’ve decided, a bad thing. Much like, Exhibit B, when Black Cat Bone, the Beijing-based blooze-rock band I play in, appeared. That the crowd dug the first band’s rendition of the classic “My Favourite Things” (and several other Japanese folk tunes, pop tunes, classical and more) as done by a glamourously-dressed female erhu-er and her accompanist, who played the keytar like it was 1984 and he was sitting in with Deep Purple, equally as much as our version of, say, “Needle and Spoon”, a rockin’ raucous tune about a favourite thing of a very different kind, shouldn’t be interpreted as anything less than the product of an audience more open-minded than a gathering of experimental musicians on a Tuesday night at 2 Kolegas. Because, unlike me, the crowd found no irony in their giddiness over the Japanese duo’s elevator pop, or strangeness in the fact that they also ate up our rockin’ blooze. But up-for-anything also means unlikely to be interested in any artist in particular: There for renao alone – excitement – it’s hard to encourage long-term interest in the bands that come through.

Though the activity online after our show was nice to see HERE and HERE, it is interest of a short-term kind. Which, again is fine. Because the Series is engaged in education – as is, like it or not, the work being done by every festival, concert, jam session and more in the country – for good, and for evil. With bite-sized versions of a festival clearing the groundwork for a future audience for live music in general, and in educating audiences that live music – of literally all kinds – is not only not dangerous, it’s a whole lotta fun, HiFi Xijindu is doing Good Works.

Did the energy of the crowd, who flashed devil horns and ate up every solo we threw their way, who looooved the fact that we were Chinese-speakers – a fact that the experienced MC among our ranks used to particular advantage – inspire and make us remember how fun playing music could be? They sure did. And unlike so many gigs, festivals, events, etc that may climax with a gracious crowd that excites a band, this one wasn’t full of the kind of speed bumps that are so common to events of all sizes, and tend to discolor the experience of performing: No missed pick-ups, no missing gear, no inexperienced sound/stage crew, no feeling that we, the band, were obstacles preventing the crew from doing their job. That the crowd was so excited because they’ve been starved for content only reinforces my resolve that it’s places like Zhenjiang that ought to be hosting more events of this kind. As long as they can do it well.

Will I be going back to Zhenjiang, or recommending it as a tourist destination? If it’ll get the government to continue supporting the Series, hell yeah. So let me let you in on a little secret:

Zhenjiang is lovely this time of year.

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 LinkedIn 0 Google+ 0 0 Flares ×