Friday, September 03, 2010

Helen does the right thing

For a long time now, getting on for two years, I suppose, it has appeared that the de-lovely Helen Feng had been neglecting her stonkingly good pop-rock band Ziyo in favour of her new interest in synthesisers and the bunch of new friends with whom she'd formed the - bafflingly successful - 'disco cabaret' group Pet Conspiracy (an outfit I found to be almost entirely devoid of musical merit and steadily disappearing further up their own fundament with each show).

Then Ziyo adopted the very silly new name Free The Birds at the end of last year, in what looked like a rather desperate attempt to give the band some new impetus (an eccentric indulgence which has led to them now having to be cumbersomely billed as Free The Birds [formerly Ziyo]).

And then some Ziyo/FTB gigs were cancelled, amid rumours that the band was breaking up. And then it was confirmed that Mao Mao - their extraordinarily cool and charismatic drummer, who's probably very nearly as big a draw for them as Helen - was indeed quitting the group. Things were looking pretty bleak for us Ziyo fans.

Then again, Helen didn't play with either FTB or Pet Conspiracy for a few months, after crocking her leg in an onstage accident at the Strawberry Festival back at the start of May.

And then.... a couple of weeks ago at the Ditan Park Festival, Pet Conspiracy unexpectedly went on without Helen. The emotions produced in me by this surprise were decidedly mixed. Pet Conspiracy with Helen at least have sex appeal and some good vocals going for them; without her, I wasn't going to be able to survive more than half their set. On the other hand, my heart started to be warmed by the nervous hope that maybe, just maybe she'd split from them for good. What's more, the elaborate video backdrop accompanying the show (something that it looked like they planned on using more than once, not just for this Ditan gig) included exhaustive credits for everyone involved in making it and everyone performing in the band - but omitted Helen, until a 'Special thanks to....' mention at the very end. This certainly seemed to be a very hefty hint that Helen had parted company from the other 'conspirators'.

And then, quite suddenly, another Free The Birds gig appeared in the schedules - they were to be headlining the monthly 'Zippo Hot List' concert at Yugong Yishan at the end of August. Was it too much to hope that, after what had seemed to be an 18-month battle between these two bands for the soul of Helen Feng, the Forces of Light had finally prevailed????

Er, NO - it seems it wasn't!! Oh, frabjous day!!!

Helen, we now learn, has been growing dissatisfied with Pet Conspiracy for some time, and has decided to devote herself wholeheartedly to Free The Birds again, and to develop some new music with them. They're even planning to go into the studio to lay down a new album. She's off in Europe for a few weeks now, honouring a final commitment to Pet Conspiracy to do this mini-tour with them; but after that, it's back to the rockin' Helen we've so adored for these past several years. And, judging from last Friday's rollicking (but too short!) set at Yugong, she's loving being back. [The latest scoop on this from "I am NOT a stalker" Badr on Beijing Daze.]

Alas, that Yugong show was Mao Mao's farewell performance with the band. However, his replacement is to be Ubuul, the unassuming Uyghur with the jaw-dropping finger-drumming skills, who turns up at gigs all over town carrying his drum and just sits in with whoever's playing for a laugh. It's only fairly recently, I think, that he's started playing regularly with bands (notably French guitar wizard Jean-Sebastien's experimental folk duo Zhang Si'an), and I didn't know he could play a full drum kit at all; but just about every musician I know is in awe of his talents as a percussionist and of his adaptability and general musical acumen. He won't be such a big personality as Mao Mao, but I think musically he will prove to be a more than worthy replacement. I can't wait to see his first gig with them.

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