Sunday, May 02, 2010

Midi musings

A great day out at the Midi Music Festival in Haidian Park yesterday - largely thanks to the perfect weather: cloudless powder-blue skies and bright, bright sunshine, but a brisk breeze keeping temperatures comfortable (also, because of the weird, still fairly wintry weather we've experienced through much of April, the trees are still in blossom two or three weeks after they should have shed, so the park is looking even prettier).

And thanks to the opening of the Line 4 subway, the venue is now relatively easy to access - walkable from the new Zhongguancun station (perhaps a mile-and-a-half).

The new secondary stage (well, I don't remember this from previous years) sponsored by Pilot Records is a great area, apparently part of the mysterious Changchunyuan Club (a bizarre conservatory-like building in the shape of a submarine; it looks as if the place may be severely underused, since the sign has evidently read 'Changchunyuan Clu' for many years). And I think it actually had most of the better acts, at least for the afternoon. It has many other advantages over the main stage, too: a solid floor (so no worries about dust or mud, and no tents getting in your way); a cool amphitheatre setting (it even has some raked bench seating over on the far side, though most of it doesn't really have a view of the stage); real toilets, rather than sweltering portakabins (hidden away round the side, almost unused!); and a large round stage that projects much further into the audience than any of the others. Also, the stage is fairly open and unprotected at the sides, so you can at a couple of points get right up next to it - or peer through the scaffolding round the back (I felt like I was practically on stage with Sham 69!!).

Credit to Mao Live House for creative improvisation: during their present shutdown (hopefully temporary: their website is advertising that they'll be running gigs again from next Sunday) they have at very short notice set up an additional stage of their own. It's a charming, intimate space (easy to miss, round the back of the Yen Stage, in the "Flower Vale"), with plenty of shade, and a few umbrella'd café tables.

The folk stage is also a chill spot, in a nice wooded grove, and probably has the best music of all - but (more than I remember in previous years) it's suffering from noise pollution from the other parts of the venue (down the left-hand side seems to be the only bit where you're reasonablly well insulated from the ruckus of the Tang and Yen stages). And being completely open to the skies may be a problem if the good weather deserts us.

The Yen stage for DJ stuff always seems a bit of an irrelevance to me. Most times I drifted past, there were no more than a couple of dozen people there, and they were displaying curious bemusement rather than enthusiasm. The DJs had to switch to a more rock'n'roll selection later in the afternoon to entice any of the festival-goers to jump around. Let's face it, people who like dance 'music' are mostly not awake during the day.

In front of the Yen stage, however, there is another small but not-to-be-missed feature: a tent with a great little exihibition of photographs of Beijing's rock'n'roll scene.

Another welcome new feature is the 'Red Tent', an art installation on the edge of the lake: hundreds of photographs have been printed onto banners of pink fabric, which are then strung from a wire frame to create a big conical tent of gently rustling, delightfully cool, dappled shade - a temple of calm in the heart of the festival.

There are a few more negative things to report, though. The food, I thought, seemed fairly poor this year (although the event's been cancelled by the authorities for the last two years, and in '07 it was marred by poor weather; so my memories of this are mostly going back four years or more, and are perhaps a bit over-romanticized); what's more, most of the vendors aren't displaying their prices - it's a pain-in-the-arse to have to keep asking, and does leave you vulnerable to being fleeced with an inflated 'foreigner price'.

Beer and soft drink stalls seem to be far fewer and less conspicuous than in previous years. And although in theory the beguilingly cheap 5-kuai cup of beer is still available, I was twice told that a stall had run out, and that I'd have to make do with a 'premium draft' for 15 kuai instead (Really - you've run out of your main product by 3pm?? And isn't your colleague selling a 5-kuai beer to the Chinese gentleman next to me??). Ggrrrrrr. And 'premium draft', alas, comes in a bottle, and is pretty skanky. Nobody seems to have draught beer this year. Or refrigeration. It was not a good beer day. (Thank heavens the Mao stage is selling tall cups of fairly strong mixed drinks for 30 kuai.)

There's an infestation of mini-tents this year. I don't begrudge people a bit of shade and comfort, but it really has become a problem for the rest of us. The organizers don't seem to have done anything to designate particular areas for people with tents, so they're everywhere around the main stage, seriously obstructing access from the path leading from the Pilot stage. After a while, you do get tempted to just stomp all over them.

In general, that one narrow path between the two main stages gets pretty badly overcrowded at times. [Tip: it's often quicker to go the long way round - around the back along the canal, and past the Mao and Yen stages.] Things must have been pretty horrendous for a while when people realised that Sham 69, the day's biggest name, were only on the Pilot stage rather than the main stage (what was up with that scheduling?!): there was hardly anyone there for the start of their set, but it was heaved out by half-way through.

The cult novelty item this year seems to be scalp-massage 'hats' - tea-whisk affairs whose springy metal spines grip the top of your head, and supposedly stimulate acu-pressure points. One girl liked them so much she was wearing four at once. Quite apart from the fact that this device is based on absurd superstitious quackery, and makes you look like a twat, I was concerned about the hygiene issue: vendors are demonstrating the 'hats' on themselves, then their friends, and then anyone else who comes within range, before they finally make their sale to you - share the dandruff, people!

Ah well, enough for now. I might try and post a few pictures later in the week. Right now, I'm about to be late for Day 2......

[I hear the rival Strawberry Festival out in Tongzhou was a bit of a disaster. Great music, but dismal organization. Only two ticket-sellers, resulting in queues of up to two hours to get in. Serious problems with the sound systems. Running out of beer. And water. And it takes at least twice as long to get to as Midi. Forget it.]

Day 2 Update: The crowd seemed slightly thinner than Day 1, at least until the evening (a lot of people doubtless came only for local favourites Voodoo Kungfu, AK-47, and XTX at the end of the bill), although there seemed to be a slightly higher proportion of laowai.

There was a rather different atmosphere, in a number of ways. The scalp-massager helmets had mysteriously disappeared (perhaps the guy selling them had shifted all of his stock on Day 1, and was able to retire on the proceeds?); yesterday's leading fad seemed to be large yellow powerballs. Tents were much less in evidence, and the area at the side of the main stage remained clear of them (although there was no evidence of the organisers doing anything to prevent people pitching tents there..... it was as though there'd been a sudden, mysterious outbreak of common sense).

I was being unduly paranoid when I supposed on Saturday that I was a victim of anti-foreigner price-gouging at the beer stalls (although I did receive confirmation that I had been outrageously overcharged for a couple of large but not very nice kebabs). It seems that the problem is that - for some reason - draught beer was outlawed at the last minute. Some of the stalls actually have draught beer there on site, but they're not being allowed to sell it. It's listed as available on the banners above each stall, but.... I've noticed a lot of other punters (not just laowai, but Chinese too) getting really pissed off about this. I mean, it really wouldn't be very much trouble to stick a strip of white paper on the banners to block out the '5-kuai draft beer' advertisement, or to put handwritten signs on the counters explaining that, unfortunately, it's not available after all. Alas, it seems that this is too much trouble for the stall-holders - who would much rather explain to every single customer that they're not in fact selling what their banner says they're selling. The 15-kuai bottled beer is a much less appealing option, and not just because of the price differential (small enough, but psychologically significant; well, also financially significant if you anticipate drinking 3 or 4 cups an hour for the whole day!!) - crappy taste (not sure what the hell brand it is, but it's not good), and chilled poorly or not at all. The inexplicable ban on cheap draught beer is the one major foot-shooting of what is otherwise an extremely well-run and enjoyable festival. All the Midis I remember in the past were very boozy affairs, but this year people just aren't drinking much beer. It's a pity.

Well, I do have two other gripes. The Yen Stage is bugging the crap out of me. They were getting really, really LOUD yesterday. Honestly, by early evening, they were way the loudest of any of the stages, drowning out the performers on the folk stage, and creating significant irritation even on the main stage. Something needs to be done about that.

Also, they didn't appear to have done any hosing of the ground overnight. After two days of hot sunshine and thousands of people tramping to and fro, the main stage area is a dustbowl, and the gritty air rasps in your throat, stings your eyes. If it gets any worse, it's going to be seriously reducing visibility (and bothering the performers, too; singers especially, who are going to be having a hard time keeping their voices in good shape). Something needs to be done about this, too.

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