Sunday, April 29, 2012

Festival mayhem

With May Day coming in the first half of the week, and the government generously deciding to give us this Sunday off as well (at the price of supposedly having to work yesterday... and maybe next Saturday as well??), we've got a nice three or four-day break ahead of us.

I used to like the May Day holiday in Beijing. It's pretty reliably the best time of the year here: the weather has just turned nice, but not yet too hot. And we always used to have the Midi Music Festival to look forward to - China's first and best outdoor rock show, and actually within the city limits (albeit it way out in the north-west corner; it's always been reasonably accessible by bus or taxi, and with the opening of the Line 4 subway a few years ago, it became walkable from the Beida stop).

But now... the upstart Strawberry Festival and the Chaoyang International Festival (which started a few years ago, but used to favour a date later in the summer) are running directly against it, as is the Ditan Park Folk Festival. As I griped 18 months ago, the music scene in China isn't yet strong enough to support this many festivals, certainly not head-to-head. In fact, taken all together, it seems to be the weakest May festivals line-up we've seen for years. Not many foreign artists on the bills at all, no-one of any major note (Mos Def was the only big name scheduled, and he cancelled at the last minute); and the local bands are mostly the same tired old 'usual suspects' list. The field is probably strongest in the genres of hardcore punk and metal, but this isn't really my thing.

Advertising for these things seems to get worse year by year, rather than better. It's next to impossible to find websites with a full schedule, even in Chinese. Time Out Beijing seems to be the only English-language site with any listings, and ONLY for the Strawberry Festival. The normally reliable RockInChina still seems to be under the impression that Midi is happening this year in its traditional Haidian Park home, when it was announced some weeks ago that it was being shunted out to Shunyi. BeijingDaze has picked out a few highlights, but it's not enough to get me very excited.

Strawberry seems to have the strongest overall lineup - but they've made such a complete pig's ear of the organization of most of their previous events, and the Tongzhou Canal Park is such a ridiculously long way away, that I can't motivate myself to try to head out there. Midi this year is facing similar difficulties, with a late venue change being forced on the organisers. Shunyi Olympic Rowing Park is where? Fengbo subway station is where?? Well, it seems it's way out the far side of Shunyi, beyond the airport (I didn't even know that section of subway line was in service yet - I'm not completely confident it is!): fucking miles away! This being China, I'm afraid I just don't trust festival organisers (even Midi, who have done a reasonably good job of things over the years) to run an efficient shuttle bus service to the nearest public transport links; and I don't fancy getting stuck 15 miles out in the sticks if I should miss the last train or bus back into the city centre.

Cui Jian is at Midi today, a late addition to the bill. The 'Godfather' always gets a huge response from the crowd, but I feel I've seen him enough times now; and he has become a shadow of what he was 8 or 10 years ago - I think I'd rather leave my earlier memories of him unsullied. I'm starting to feel much the same about Xie Tianxiao, who's headlining Strawberry on May 1st. I caught a couple of magnificent shows by him at the old Wuming Gaodi club 7 or 8 years ago, but almost every appearance since then has disappointed me. The Chaoyang event is a bit less far out of the city, but still a pain-in-the-arse to get to, and it just doesn't seem to have any real head-turners in its lineup. The strongest day at any of the festivals as far as I can see is Day 3 (1st May) at Midi, which boasts China's two best live bands, SUBS and Miserable Faith, as well as technically dazzling French/Dutch/Chinese trio The Amazing Insurance Salesmen (recently re-formed after a long hiatus; this will be their first outdoor show, I believe; this is tempting...), a visiting Aussie band called Arcane Saints, and a few other things. I might consider that, subject to reports on the first two days, particularly in regard to the transport situation.

But it's hard to look beyond the Ditan Folk event on Monday and Tuesday. It's been a great party for the past 5 or 6 years (you can bring your own booze and food!); and it's right on my doorstep. A lot of people - including me! - criticised the organisers' decision to move their event from later in the summer to the May Holiday, but... I find that I am in fact exceedingly grateful for the option it provides... given that, as far as I am concerned, the three 'major' rock festivals it appears to be in competition with might as well not be happening.

Also tonight, I hear the Beijing Beatles are playing a gig at VA Bar to celebrate guitarist Troy's birthday. That should be worth a look.

And tomorrow, there's a super-duper version of 2 Kolegas' infamous 'Ningxia Night'. I bitched last year that Ningxia Nights had become too frequent and too samey, were actually becoming a negative draw for the majority of punters. But I haven't been to one for ages now, and one or two new bands are finally joining the roster. That might be worth a look - particularly as the weather forecast is looking worryingly 'changeable' over the next few days. Even Ditan will be out of play if the skies turn drab and start threatening rain. Thank heavens we still have plenty of options for indoor music.

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