Sunday, November 07, 2010

Diminishing returns

I went out to MAO Live House on Friday night, for the first time in ages.

Well, it was closed for several weeks earlier this year by some sort of dispute with the local authorities.  "Fire code violations" were cited, but, given the total absence of any such effective safety codes in China, I rather suspect that it was more a matter of certain pay-offs having been omitted. MAO is, I think, just about unique amongst the music venues I frequent in having two doors (at opposite ends of the room!), and is thus marginally less of a death-trap than any of its competitors.

I was delighted to see it eventually open its doors again, but.... I think this may be the first time since then that a lineup there has tempted me back.

It is - or ought to be - the best rock music venue in the city.  It has a superb sound system and acoustics (and pretty damn good sound-proofing, to limit complaints from the neighbours), and a main room of ideal size and proportions, uncluttered by the bar and lounge seating areas that ruin the experience at its leading rival, Yugong Yishan.  There's a nice scaleability about the space, too: it's so wombily dark that, when a crowd is thin, everyone gravitates towards the front, and even a few dozen people can make the place seem reasonably packed (whereas the wretched Yugong always feels echoingly deserted with less than a couple of hundred people in); 200-300 is a good number to pack out the front area near the stage; but you can probably cram in twice that number if you fully utilise the raised area at the rear as well.

Unfortunately, their scheduling continues to be all over the place (occasional super-bills with more bands than anyone would want to see in a single night; but far too many short shows and anonymous lineups), and their publicity (at least, for a non-Chinese audience) non-existent.  Also, they seem to now have absolutely no ventilation or air-conditioning in the main room: even on a cool evening with only a mid-sized crowd, the place last night was getting to be a sauna.  The insufferable temperatures in there are the No. 1 complaint from everyone I ever talk to - Chinese or foreign - about this place.

The No. 2 gripe is the uselessness of the bar.  While I applaud the decision to devote the main room exclusively to the music, they don't really have the room in the little L-shaped space outside to run a proper bar.  They invariably run out of beer, sometimes before the show's even started.  Last night, I purchased one of the last bottles of Tsingtao, only about 10 minutes after the first act had come on stage; and there wasn't much of a crowd at that point!!  The last bottles of over-priced foreign beer - like Heineken - had been hoovered up well before the headline act came on.  There were a couple of cases of cans of the local Yanjing beer in the bottom of one of the fridges, but these, I was told, were "reserved for the bands".  They have managed to put up a rather better show at the bar than this in the past; they just seem to have given up completely.  Surely there must be some additional space where they could put in some more fridges and freezers?  And if not, I think a rock'n'roll crowd would probably be reasonably tolerant of warm beer.  They could probably make more money on beer sales than they do from their door fees - if they could only lay in sufficient stock.  It's just crazy that they're not even making the effort.  (Though at least they've given up on the obnoxious 'no readmittance' policy they tried to enforce when they first opened a few years ago.  Now you can come in and out freely; so, most of the Chinese punters quaff street beers from a nearby xiaomaibu on the sidewalk out front.... while I head over the road between sets to grab a drink in the Pool Bar.)

Yet despite these horrendous shortcomings, MAO Live is still the best rock venue in the city!!  With this year's music bar newcomers, large (Mako Live and The One) and small (Zui Yuefang and Hot Cat Club and 121) alike, conspicuously failing to do anything to build a regular roster of events or a customer base, with Yugong Yishan in danger of marginalising itself as a wealthy foreigners' social club, 2 Kolegas shooting itself spectacularly in the foot with ridiculous new speaker stacks which are far too loud for the venue and obscure half the stage, and even old favourites like Jianghu and Jiangjinjiu having mostly rather disappointing years, the situation for music bars has become almost as dire as that for sports barsIf someone could start running one of these places really well, they'd make a killing.  

I'd say MAO has much the best opportunity; but it needs to treble the size of its bar and install some industrial air-conditioning units.

[Oh, the music?  It started off well, but deterioriated steadily.  Ghost Spardac, despite their unfathomably terrible name, were actually pretty damned good: a tight little trio who play with a lot of energy and self-belief.  Punk-ish aggression, but with refreshing infusions of melody: reminded me a bit of Green Day. (Were some of the songs in English?  I couldn't really tell.  In general, I think it's a mistake for Chinese bands to try to sing in English!) I am assured that they have been together a couple of years or so now, but they don't seem to play many gigs - at least not anywhere that gets on the laowai radar.  I'd never heard of them before, but will be on the lookout for them now.

Next up were Bigger Bang.  I liked them the first few times I saw them a couple of years back, but they don't seem to have lived up to their initial promise.  Their frontwoman, Pupi (no idea if that's supposed to be an "English name"!), seems to aspire to be a new Kang Mao or Helen Feng - but I'm afraid she just doesn't have the voice or the looks or the sheer oomph of those two Beijing music scene heroines.  And their increasing use of electronica to fill out their sound is only going to further alienate a long-time synth-sceptic like me.

The main event were a Taiwanese band called White Eyes, who had been raved about by music blogger Beijing Daze when they played here in the spring.  I suspect Badr was once again letting his libido get the better of his judgement on this.  Their energetic female lead singer Xiao Gao turned up to that previous gig in an outrageous flesh-coloured slip dress with her lady-bits rather too realistically painted on the front of it.  Last night, after wearing a hooded grey cape for the first few numbers (to build up a sense of  anticipation in her drooling front-row fans), she disrobed to reveal a scarlet bustier and a skintight micro-skirt (I remember Ian Fleming had a great line about one of his Bond girls wearing something that was "decent by an inch"; this skirt was indecent by at least an inch and a half!).  Aside from this welcome frisson of titillation, though, they seemed to me to be just another cookie-cutter Chinese pop-punk band, fairly indistinguishable from dozens of similar mainland acts (and less good than many).  Xiao Gao is more of a screecher than a singer (I suffered one or two uncomfortable flashbacks of the appalling Gia Wang!), and all the songs sounded much the same.  I found my enthusiasm for the show waning after 10 minutes or so, and gone completely in 25...]

No comments: