Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Reflections on this year's Midi (with pictures!)

Oh, well, three weeks late, but what the hey......

This was the leafy haven of the 'Folk Stage', the chillest spot to hang out, and scene of some of the best music in the whole damn festival - but plagued by sound pollution from the dratted Yen DJ stage nearby.

I'd gone back on Day 2 primarily to catch Xiao He (who I hadn't seen in over a year, I think) play there. The man tends to polarise opinion, with some music-lovers just not buying into the weirdness. And his current obsession with looping samples via a laptop (there must be some new software out that makes this relatively easy to orchestrate; His occasional collaborator, virtuoso saxophone loon Li Tieqiao, is doing a lot of the same kind of thing at the moment) is rendering him less and less accessible, even to his diehard fans. This technology is encouraging his egomania to run riot, as he discovers that he can clone dozens of versions of his musical self through the computer to create whole bands and choirs and orchestras of Xiao Hes; alas, it is just taken a few steps too far. Hopefully, he'll soon tire of his new toys (he seems to tire of everything he tries, and usually sooner rather than later; it's almost always a completely novel show from him, even if you see him just a few weeks apart), and realise that one of him is quite enough. The excessive reliance on the computer - with some of the tracks seemingly pre-recorded, rather than laid down and looped on the spot - takes some of the 'live' feel from the performance. It also distracts from his guitar playing, which can on occasion be quite exquisite. My sceptical companion Ruby was not the only observer to gripe that he should - in the words of the late, great Frank Zappa - Shut up 'n play yer guitar.

Rather as they used to say of Wagner, his set this time had "great moments and awful quarter hours": there were some marvellous passages, occasional outbreaks of conventional melody and even, goddammit, a certain catchiness; but then the spell would be broken by relapses into caterwauling vocals or the introduction of an excruciating electro-bloop effect that would have been more at home on the dreaded techno stage. And it all went on too long (there were only about three or four distinct segments, as far as I recall, each lasting at least ten or fifteen minutes - and they might in fact have been intended as a single, 'symphonic' composition). However, the greatness of Xiao He is that even when he's bugging the crap out of you with his self-indulgence, you still feel privileged to be listening to him. There's more talent in his little finger than in most of the rest of Beijing's musicians collectively; and he's so completely absorbed in what he's doing that he sucks you in too, forces you to suspend judgement for the duration by his mesmerising intensity, conviction, self-belief. Well, he does if he's previously won you over with some of his more audience-friendly shows; BeijingDaze's Badr refused to be converted.
One of the highlights of the first day had been the Stalingrad Cowgirls from Finland - hardly outstanding musicians, but a fun party band, goth-punk sexy. And a Chinese crowd is always easily won over by a a Ramones cover (Hey ho, let's GO!). I think this was about the bounciest things got during the three days I was there.

The 'big event' of the first day, though, was the appearance of veteran British Oi! punk band, Sham 69. Unfortunately, it was starting to get dark, so my photos were all coming out a bit blurred. For some unfathomable reason, they had been scheduled on the secondary Pilot Stage; a fact of which much of the crowd seemed to have been unaware, because they opened up to an almost empty amphitheatre, but there was then a veritable stampede over from the Tang Stage.
The boys still knock out a damn good tune - high point of the whole festival for me.

On the second day, I rather liked Shanghai band Honey Gun [OK, I stand corrected: I ran into Mr Daze this very evening, and he assures me that Honey Gun are a Beijing outfit; I hope I wasn't inclined to overrate them because I mistakenly believed them to be someone else! And I find it odd that I've never seen them - or even heard of them - here in Beijing before. And I wonder who the band I was confusing them with is - could it be that there's a Shanghai band called Love Gun or Honey Bunch??], of whom I've long been hearing good things (but I don't think they've played here in Beijing before). Unfortunately, I only caught the tail-end of their set (gallingly, the scheduled stage times were often wildly inaccurate; one expects things to start running a bit late at events like this, but there's really no excuse for so many bands to have been coming on 15 or 20 minutes earlier than they were supposed to!). I admired their ballsiness in offering a cover of Led Zep's Black Dog - although their guitarist came rather closer to emulating Jimmy Page than the vocalist did to Robert Plant.
Nevertheless, they impressed as a very tight and competent unit, and they had a swagger about them that most of Beijing's bands still lack.
Here I find myself parting company from Mr Daze (who I bumped into a number of times during the festival, and shared a hei che back with on the evening of Day 2). I treasure his blog as an invaluable source of gossip about the Beijing music scene, but our tastes seem scarcely to coincide at all. He raved about the 'death metal with Chinese characteristics' of Voodoo Kung Fu (for me, the gimmickiness doesn't overcome my distaste for the basic genre, and their novelty value wears thin after a couple of minutes or so), and ho-hum British metallers The Prophecy (admittedly they got a great response from the crowd - but Chinese kids are suckers for metal), and Israeli freakshow Asaf Avidan and The Mojos (yeah, yeah, very talented guy, but also massively self-indulgent - and after a while I began to find the affected girliness of his voice merely grating); and, most bizarrely of all, he loved a band called Dude who played over on the dinky little Mao Stage (a bunch of laowai who cover Mandopop ballads, starting out straight but then giving them a thrash-punk makeover; it's the kind of gag that over-eager Mandarin students do for their end-of-term 'talent competition' - and it gets old really quickly; honestly, why would you ever want to do more than one song like this?!). He also goes overboard for Nanwu, who strike me as a rather lame imitation of Secondhand Rose; the antics of their gumby 'comedian' simply irritate me. (I wonder if he's drawing on some kind of 'fool' performance tradition, perhaps from one of the regional opera varieties? There's something similar about the exuberant capering and epileptic twitchings of Shan Ren's Xiao Bu Dian; and, indeed, about that spazzy laowai 'MC' with the execrable Candy Monster - what the fuck were they doing on the main stage??!! - although in that case, it's probably not deliberate.)

On the other hand, he disses Xiao He (point taken, but the man's a genius, and you have to indulge geniuses), Honey Gun (not heavy enough for you?), and Perdel (who, even though they are not exactly my thing - far too bland [and taking the Beatles thing a bit too far with the matching moptops and braided 'Sergeant Pepper' uniforms] - are a really tight band, and benefit enormously from having a frontman who can actually sing [an almost unique distinction on the Beijing scene at present]; I thought they did a superb job of working up a crowd slightly thinned by the first intimations of rain, producing probably the best Chinese performance of the festival). It seems we must agree to differ, my friend.

I think I enjoyed Shan Ren most among the acts I caught on the main stage; although they suffer from a lack of musical identity - playing ska, rap, folk, and most things in between - and are much less compelling in a more intimate setting (I saw them twice again in the subsequent week or so, at 121 and at Jianghu; but without the space for their eccentric multi-instrumentalist Xiao Bu Dian to go cavorting manically all over the stage, they seemed rather humdrum). It was rather odd, though, that almost all of the best acts were playing over on the Pilot Stage. Sound leaking over there from the - supposedly 'main' - Tang Stage seemed to be one long, indistinguishable splurge of metal, with just occasional interruptions of shrieking death metal or rap (hardly an improvement!); after Day 1, I scarcely bothered to swing by the Tang Stage at all.

Another little unexpected gem was happening upon top party act Skarving playing their infectious 'big band' ska and two-tone on the Mao Stage (while I applaud the effort of the Mao staff in creating such a pleasant venue at very short notice, I regret to say that the roster of performers there was very weak, most of them deservedly unknown; I was always tempted to stay for a sit-down and a reviving Jack-and-Coke when I happened by between bands; I was always inclined to keep walking when I happened by while a band was on). And I would really, really, really like to know who the first band on the Pilot Stage on Day 1 were: I was listening to them while queueing for my ticket just outside, and they played an awesome version of the B-52s' Rock Lobster, with some demented drumming and squalling guitar feedback remiscent of The Who; and they followed that up with a fine cover of Bang! Bang! - but then went off stage just as I finally got into the venue.

A few more random snapshots to close with....

This is the 'Red Tent' art installation I mentioned in my earlier (contemporary!) post on the festival - a delightful (and strangely underused) chill-out retreat in the heart of all the mayhem.

Another shot, from over by the Pilot Stage (the Tang Stage is behind, to the left; a small lake lies between the two stages).

This is a view of the rear of the Pilot Stage, seen from the top of the banked amphitheatre seating along the left-hand side (no security at all: if you had wanted to crash the back-stage area to hang out with your favourite musicians - or to crash the stage itself - it would have been the easiest thing in the world..... luckily, everyone was very well-behaved).

And you see, it really does say Changchunyuan Clu..... (the mysterious extension to the festival venue area this year, home to that excellent Pilot Records Stage).

And so, until next year.......


Ruby said...

Well maybe not shut up, Xiao He has a beautiful voice when he chooses to use it. I do think he is pure musical genius, but there's a very fine line between genius and crazy and he's walking that line.
I have heard his set at the Yushu benefit at Mako was all acoustic and amazing. I've never seen a full acoustic set.
The first time I heard him was at Yugong Yishan, where he was my stand-out favourite, sandwiched in between Carsick Cars (over-rated!) and P.K.14 for the SXSW gig. Not sure how he was received in the US, but the track they chose for the SXSW mix was sadly one of his futuristic squealing, computer beeping ones.

Froog said...

We're overdue for another Glorious Pharmacy reunion. I know someone with a little 'influence'; I'll have to start lobbying.