The following review is brought to you by a good friend of mine, Mark Hiew, whose work you might have seen in City Weekend some time. He headed to China Music Valley on its second day, and here’s what he had to say about it…
The second and final day of the inaugural Beijing CMV Festival was a sunny, successful and sanitized affair, marked as much by its thin crowds and heavy police presence as by the impressive array of foreign acts, including Hot Hot Heat, Ladytron and Editors. The clear blue skies were a thankful relief from the prior day’s soiled air, and festival-goers reveled amidst the varied range of artists and plentiful space.
Given last year’s logistical issues at Strawberry festival, which included running out of water during the first day, it was nice to see how smoothly CMV ran. Compared to MIDI or Strawberry, CMV is a much smaller affair. Beyond its two stages, the grounds offered little more than food stalls and bathrooms, lacking the flea markets, local bands and smaller stages that lend the other festivals so much of their character. The lack of any merchandising altogether was surprising, and begs the question of why the festival organizers didn’t set up such seemingly obvious sources of revenue.
Also notable was the lack of booze. Friends spotted beer kegs set up and ready to go, but staff strangely refused to sell any alcohol. When I asked an employee at one of the stalls why the prohibition, her answer was somewhat unsatisfying: “So that you guys don’t get drunk.” But then why even bring them? Clearly, regulations had undergone recently changed. Apparently, Strawberry in Suzhou was cancelled due to some harmony-affecting problems, which would explain the crackdown, and which also accounts for the presence of far more security than I have seen at festivals in recent years. Not that they actually did much. Lined up by the side or seated in rows around the stages, they utterly ignored the crowd surfing or crazy dancing, and towards evening’s end, some had even begun to join the crowd up front.
The festival was held at a converted ski resort, with the two stages (named yew 乐 and gu 谷) set up side-by-side. Performances ran back to back on alternating stages, with generally only a few minutes between sets. This made it convenient for punters to either walk between the two, or simply to watch performances on the opposite stage from their own. One annoyance, however, was that organizers controlled the number of attendees who could enter the designated ‘zones’ at certain times, meaning that some punters had to watch from the outer zones. This wasn’t a huge issue, but at one stage I had two friends refused entry to our zone when it seemed that there was still ample room to fit more people, particularly by Chinese standards.
In terms of the crowd, CMV had a much more varied, less sub-cultural audience than MIDI or Strawberry, with plenty of families, including grandmas and little children, brought along for some fun. It felt far less pretentious than the hipster fashion show of Strawberry, though it also possessed hardly any of the other festivals’ unifying rock fan community vibe. Perhaps they were kept away by the distance—though the hour plus commute from conveniently located chartered buses was quite tolerable—or the higher prices (260RMB one day admission at the door, including transport) and lack of Chinese bands. Those that took a chance however were treated to a rare showcase of Western artists, whose tunes ranged from the gloomy electro rock of Ladytron to the spunky charms of KT Tunstall.
The day’s proceedings begun with minor Chinese rock star Jessica Jiang, whose mix of gentle rock and acoustic ballads got the early attendees on their feet. Before her set had ended, however, the younger, college student contingent had begun their migration from her stage to the one next door, in preparation for Hot Hot Heat’s set. The Canadian indie rockers played a short, fifty minute-long set, which featured a mix of old and new tunes, including an extended version of ‘Bandages’, during which singer Steve Bays strutted out to the stage’s extended flank, dazzling adoring female fans with his skin-tight jeans, bouncy white-boy ‘fro and signature Robert Smith-tinged croon. At one stage, a crowd member requested a song which Steve said was “the one song that we were told we’re not allowed to play.” ‘Save Us, SOS’ perhaps?
The band’s grungy outfits and rocker cool stood in stark contrast to Huang Xiao Hu, a middle-aged Taiwanese songstress who moonlights as the Simon Cowell for a Taiwanese pop idol TV show. Huang, who looks in her early fifties, satisfied the older, less Westernized members of the audience with her mix of 90s-era Mandopop ballads, frequently exhorting the crowd to sing along, before chiding them for their sub-par attempts. Before the crowd could tire of her ice queen personality, she was saved by the blind Taiwanese composer-singer Xiao Huang Qi, who sung a duet of the current hit “没那么简单” with her before taking over himself.
That was it for the Mandopop contingent for CMV, and was followed by a string of British pop rockers. A very young-looking, polite Little Boots, in a glittering little gold dress, charmed the crowd with her bright, dancy synth-pop. The set peaked with new song “Crescendo”, which she introduced as being performed live for the first time. The crowd was less impressed by Ladytron—ironic given that they were the most well-established of the day’s acts. Their gothic electro-rock, which sounded so effervescently cool in Western nightclubs in the early 2000s—seemed slightly out of place against the setting sun at an outdoor rock festival in Beijing.
Editors, though, whose black dress and gloomy themes seem in many ways a musical extension of Ladytron, received a far more enthusiastic response. Manically intense frontman Tom Smith managed to hold the crowd’s attention with the majestic power of his voice, ably supported through the powerful drive of his band. This, despite each of his xie xies—which sounded more like “shi’a shi’a”—instigating gentle giggles from the crowd. Their set mixed the spiny post-punk of earlier albums with the surprisingly delicate electro-tinged sounds of their latest, and was for me by far the most enjoyable act of the day.
While many had started to leave by the time KT Tunstall arrived, the Scottish singer-songwriter managed to keep those who stuck around happy with her sprightly performance, in which she wowed the crowd with her effortless percussive looping. Tunstall is in fact one quarter Chinese, making her performance something of a homecoming of sorts, and she won the crowd over early into her set when she exclaimed:
“I just learned some Chinese for you guys… wait, how did it go? Oh yeah… wo ai nimen!”