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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Zebra Music Fetival review (Day 3)

If Day 2 was Zebra fest’s endless party, Day 3 was the comedown, all mellowed out and tranquil. That is, at least, from a crowd perspective, where compared to the previous day, the festival’s finale had significantly less people, and only really started to fill out by evening. On stage, however, things were far from calm. For where the prior day was filled with more poppy, flamboyant groups, the last day’s line-up of buzzworthy bands were generally more angsty and indie in sound: think Queen versus Sonic Youth. 

The first set we caught at the main stage was Hedgehog, a highly-regarded garage-punk trio from Beijing with a pint-sized but surprisingly powerful female drummer named Atom. Their tightly-wound fury and knack for writing catchy songs could easily lend them lazy Nirvana comparisons, but seeing as they closed their set with a tidy cover of “Territorial Pissings”, I think it’s only fair. Similarly, at the end of their righteously well-received set, the lead singer somewhat awkwardly pushed over his Marshall with his guitar, and the drummer threw her sticks against the floor, which bounced like a tennis ball. It was by far the most (perhaps only) self-destructive ‘rock-and-roll’ moment of the entire festival.

Following Hedgehog was Carsick Cars, one of the only bands I had heard of prior to the festival. The China blogosphere hypes this group like the NME upon hearing the Strokes, and opening for indie royalty like Sonic Youth can only further such gusts of hot air. But, to their credit, they played a very impressive set, utilizing plenty of white noise and demonstrating the most learned and tasteful influences (they reference Velvet Underground and Yo La Tengo) of all the performers. It sounds quite absurd to talk of bands needing to be “learned” in rock and roll, but, after you’ve heard enough local screamo acts, you too will appreciate such ‘high-brow’ sounds. Carsick’s mood, aided by the dark abstract imagery on-screen during their set, is both nihilistic and hopeful, delivered partly as a sneer and filled with youthful exuberance and potential. If I was to postulate: they seem to embody the designer brand-rock subculture of current China’s rising youth urban middle-class, as the fashionable teens in the pit, screaming along to each lyric by heart, would suggest. 

In between Carsick Cars and yet another Beijing noise-rock group, Subs, came Ashura, one of Chengdu’s oldest (10 + years) and most established bands. Whereas the previous two trios sound seemed better suited to dark clubs, Ashura’s brand of Red Hot Chili Peppers-inspired, arena-size rap-rock was perfectly suited to the event. The four piece looked immediately at home, and almost upon taking the stage had the packed audience bouncing along to their soaring guitar riffs, fluid rap verses and ubiquitous hooks.

Subs also had the crowd moving, but in a different way. Their sound is far more raw and dissonant, all primal punk energy, and their amps were turned up so loud that they practically blew a path through the park, a la Mogwai. Their vocalist Kang Mao is China's answer to Karen O, leaping and screaming about in slightly deranged-looking make-up and bowl cut. We left early however to catch our friends in Proximity Butterfly at the Deputy stage.

Proximity are mainstays on the Chengdu foreigner nightlife calendar; their shows are like community meet-ups, something that Joshua (originally from the US) and Heather’s (Canada) inclusive personalities help to foster. Compared to the other groups at Zebra, I was struck at how much more ambitious their musical vision is: think Jane’s Addiction and RATM singing of a post-apocalyptic world, they mix Joshua’s philosophical/mystical subject matter with muscular, funky riff workouts. Where it feels like other groups are either in the process of finding their sound or describing more primal states of being such as rebellion and relationship angst, Proximity have already created their own entirely unique musical world.

They were followed by the Trouble, a good-natured ska band, decked out in matching suspender and bow tie black-and-white outfits. And while such music for me will forever be associated with high-school Reel Big Fish covers, it seemed the audience was enjoying the six piece’s cheerful, lighter vibe. Over by the Xiongmao stage, DJ Charlie, originally from Washington DC, was keeping a sizable crowd grooving with his signature mix of 90s hip hop and classics, jumping from Michael Jackson to James Brown to Chemical Brothers with enthusiasm. We left while headliners High Tone, a French dub group, mixed their dated sounding instrumentals before what was left of the slightly bemused crowd.

In talking to a friend about the show, we both agreed that little that we’d seen at the festival would be considered particularly new or ‘hip’ back in the West. But of course, we’re not at Glastonbury…we’re at Chengdu’s first ever serious music festival and so, for most of the thousands of locals who passed through over the past three days, seeing these bands must have been a significant, or at least eye-opening experience. It’s great enough that something like this is taking place here: let’s hope that they’ll make it an annual event!

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