May Festival Deathmatch

After the Mayday weekend, I had every intention of rushing over to my computer and joining in on the review blitz that I was sure would be erupting across the musical blogosphere… but then I was, like, super-tired from going to so many shows, so I rested for a week. The delay did, however, give me a chance to squeeze in one more festival – Ditan Folk – which happened last weekend in Ditan Park.

As per the festivals – I’ll start out by admitting that I didn’t go to any of the May fests last spring – however I did read and hear lots of criticism of the two bigguns, particularly Strawberry, which came under fire by both Carsick Cars’ Zhang Shouwang and Pet Conspiracy’s Helen Feng for:

  • poor treatment of the artists
  • poor organization
  • overbranding

In its post Art Vs. Commerce last year, China Music Radar also slammed Strawberry for excessive branding and bad production. Most offensive, based on reports from friends, was the sound bleeding between stages, which had been placed much too close together.

And so it was with a mixture of excitement, curiosity, and reluctance that I tripped my way out toBeijing’s furthest corners this Mayday weekend to enjoy a sampling of festivals. On Saturday I hit Raying Temple’s ExSE (East by Southeast), an indoor experimental festival, Sunday was Midi, and Monday was Strawberry. The following weekend, I took a delightfully short trip to Ditan Park for the folk fest.

Now. I’m not saying that this was a competition – the more the merrier, right? – but I am going to force all the festivals to face off in a deathmatch… based on my personal experience of each one. Because, you know, I mean, why not? What the hell?

TRANSPORTATION

Midi: On the day I went to Midi, May 1, everything was smooth as silk. As soon as we stepped out of the subway, there were signs everywhere pointing us toward the festival shuttle. Getting there was a piece of cake, and same for the way back.

 Strawberry: When we stepped off the subway at Sihui East, there were no signs indicating where the festival shuttle bus was. After wandering around for ten or so minutes, we finally found a sign for the shuttle down the road a few minutes. We waited like a bunch of sitting ducks for the shuttle, as black cab drivers descended on us and carried away more and more impatient concert-goers. After 30 or 40 minutes, we finally just jumped in a cab. There were no signs for a shuttle going back, so we jumped in a city bus. (Note: several commenters at Beijing Daze noted that there was a free Ray Ban bus from Gongti that made transportation a piece of cake… though how they heard about it, I’m not sure.)+

ExSE: Subway to bus to walking. Tongzhou is far.

Ditan: Line 2.

Winner: Ditan, duh.

ORGANIZATION

Midi: Although pre-sale tickets were sold out, we only had to wait five or ten minutes to buy tix on-site. We each received a handy, well-bound booklet containing the fest schedule as well as descriptions of each band. Beer, water, and food were ample.

Strawberry: We had our tickets already, so don’t know about the waiting situation. But when we got in, there were no schedules left, which was a huge pain in the ass because there were six stages. Booths near the door did, however, have plenty of map, showing where each of the stages and – of course – the countless sponsor tents were. Refreshments were significantly less ample, but seemed to be sufficient.

ExSE: Organization? This is anarchy man! Nah, just kidding, there was a setlist taped up by the door.

Ditan: Man, what the hell! They were out of schedules by the time we got there, and they schedules they did have just listed all the bands playing in no order whatsoever. Plus they screwed up the timing, so that when Xiao He finally went out (who we waited hours to see) he only played for ten minutes.

Winner:Midi

PRODUCTION

Midi: Featured just three stages a good distance away from one another. As a crowd member, I thought the sound was decent, though the stages got a tad off-schedule. However, a friend who played on the Yen stage complained that the sound wasn’t great, and his guitar kept getting all full of dust.

Strawberry: With six stages, Strawberry had a lot to keep track of, but from where I was standing, the sound seemed pretty good. Following last year’s criticism over sound clashing, they mercifully moved the “Overload” stage over a bit, so that neighboring bands weren’t drowned out by metal. Alas, the diminutive School stage, featuring university bands, didn’t fare so well, and was mostly overwhelmed by the nearby Strawberry (?) stage.

ExSE: Boy, it was loud. But it was also inside.

Ditan: Sounded pretty good… though there was only one stage, so they had it easy.

Winner: Tie

BRANDING

Midi: Midi’s mascot this year was the persecuted Moon Bear, thousands of which are kept alive in “bile-milking” farms throughout Chinaso that their precious bodily fluids can be harvested for TCM. (See this Wikipedia article to read about the gruesome details). According to Midi’s press release, the festival teamed up with the Animal Asia Foundation to promote awareness over the issue and to raise funds through the sale of commemorative merch. Oh yeah, and there was also a Jaeger tent.

Strawberry: The festival grounds were heavily branded, featuring tents for each of their major sponsors, including…a bunch that I would cite but can’t remember because someone threw away my map. However, it seems organizers learned a lesson from last year, and didn’t force the artists to play between, like, giant computers or anything like that.

ExSE: Branding is for sellouts… or bands that actually intend to make money.

Ditan: Didn’t notice any.

Winner:Midi

LINEUP

Midi: Midi had some very respectable bands this year, tending towards a harder sound, like Misandao, AK-47, Yaksa, and SMZB. But even taking into account the two fests’ differences in style and audience, Midi still didn’t really hold a candle to Strawberry.

Strawberry: Despite all my grievances, I have to admit that Strawberry had a monster lineup over its three days. To wit: Hang on the Box, Catcher in the Rye, Hanggai, AV Okubo, Hedgehog, ReTROS, Me Guan Me’S, Lazy Camels, Bigger Bang, Mono, Queen Sea Big Shark, Elvis T, and more. Whereas last year there was a huge amount of overlap between the festivals, this year Strawberry managed to get the lockdown on some prime real estate. The two festivals only shared a couple bands, like Brain Failure and Reflector.

ExSE: This was the cream of the experimental crop, featuring a mix of Beijing and 外地 artists, including Zoomin’ Night favorites like Ice Sellers and Xiao Hong and Xiao Xiao Hong, as well as iconic NoJiji noise masters Mafeisan.

Ditan: Hard to say since the schedule made no sense whatsoever. But they did have artists like Xiao He, Mamer, and Traveller.

Winner: Strawberry

OVERALL ATMOSPHERE

Midi: Felt like an intimate punk show blown up a hundred times. Near the end of the afternoon, when Brain Failure and SMZB took the stage, hordes of mohawked youth rushed up to pump their fists, wave flags, and dance up choking clouds of dust.

Strawberry: Felt like a summer picnic. Fun, but the music was more like background noise than the center of attention.

ExSE: Felt like a magical 60’s collective house.

Ditan: Felt like I should’ve been playing some ‘sack and smokin’ a bowl. Also felt hungry because all they had there was like popcorn.

Winner: ExSE

OVERAL WINNER: ExSE

This was, hands-down, the best festival I went to all weekend. Granted, it’s a bit hard to compare a DIY experimental music fest with the horrific, drooling monsters that are Midi and Strawberry, but if we’re talking about an event that:

  • is about art rather than commerce
  • demonstrates philosophical and stylistic coherence
  • hones in on local artists rather than weird (in a bad way) foreign bands that were cool in the 80s (in a bad way)
  • helps feed the local scene

then this was the event of the season. Held at Raying Temple (小雷音), the magical DIY space/home of the NoJiji collective, the festival featured a mix of Beijing and 外地 experimental artists, including Zoomin’ Night favorites like Ice Sellers and Xiao Hong and Xiao Xiao Hong, as well as iconic NoJiji noise masters Mafeisan. My personal favorites of the day were Echo Vein, an eardrum-blowing duo that hails from Beijing and Tianjin, and Chui Wan, who I’ve seen play a few times, but only really clicked for me at their recent shows at SxSE and D22’s anniversary show. By the end of the evening, I’d seen six or seven bands, drunk lots of cheap beer, bought a collection of NoJiji poetry, and had lots of deep thoughts about art and life, the kind you only get while listening to eight loops playing over one another, and which you would never repeat to anyone, even yourself, because it would just sound too goddamn stupid.

You may protest that ExSE was more of a show than a festival – after all, it was indoors, it appealed to a very specific audience, there was no chuanr or beer in plastic cups, it had only one stage – but I guess, in a way, that’s my point. Events like Midi and Strawberry are a good excuse to travel to some far-flung, semi-rural location and get sloppy with a crowd of like-minded peers… but there’s a reason bands like Carsick Cars and PK 14 don’t play festivals.

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