Originally published in Beijing City Weekend
2 Kolegas is an interesting venue. Normally, live music venues tend to be centered around the performer stage, so that no matter where you happen to be situated, the band is central to your bearings. Not so at 2 Kolegas, with its spacious outdoor grounds (perfect for an early Autumn Saturday evening) and comfortable seating, its small stage tucked away in the narrow indoor space behind the bar. As the temperature drops, I'm sure there'll be less appeal to lingering outdoors, but at this past weekend's shows, the bands had to really work to drag punters indoors.
The Mystery Band Whose Name the Web Doesn’t Divulge opened proceedings with a reasonable set of spiky garage numbers. Decked out in matching mop tops, tight trousers and pointy shoes, their mixed Fab Four Brit-pop aesthetics with generic-in-2009 American indie influences. The lead singer, with his Steven Tyler-sized lips, skeletal frame and bangs permanently shrouding his face, did his best impersonation of Julian Casablancas and Caleb Folowill, with excessive emphasis on the hoarse yelping aspect and too little on the actual holding of a tune. Their cover of Kings of Leon's "California Waiting" epitomized the singer's stylistic exorbitance: he managed to convert what is a modern-day pop classic into a tuneless, grungy shriek. Which is a shame, given that the songs, when they rose above the standard lock-step rhythms and angular riffs that have come to dominate contemporary indie rock, were promising and energetically executed.
This is a problem that soon-to-be-household (at least by Chinese rock standards) Xi'an three-piece 24 Hours avoids. Though their British influences are clear--they are named after the film "24 Hour Party People"--they stamp their infectious brand of danceable, precise indie rock with their own distinctive mark. What jumps out at initial listeners is the slick girl-guy vocal interplay between bassist Zhang Cheng and drummer Li Guan Yu, but what has become increasingly noticeable is the central role that Li plays. His expression suggests he's having his balls wrung as he's playing, but his ear drum-blowingly muscular, flexible style and creative rhythm changes are focal to 24 Hours’ appeal, driving their imaginatively-crafted, sassy tunes along. It was another crowd-winning set, and their soon-to-be-released album (on D22’s Maybe Mars label) will surely be one of 2009’s domestic rock highlights.
After the sharp, angsty sounds of the first groups, Wu and the Side Effects provided a rousing set of bluesy seventies rock that stepped further back into rock's pantheon, treating the growing crowd to a more laid back, funky set. Wu is certainly no slouch on guitar, and after so many four note staccato riffs from earlier groups, the crowd was receptive to the axe man’s limber solos, ably shored up by the slap-happy bassist and drummer.
Around one o'clock or so, as the temperature was dropping quickly outdoors, Re-TROS finally came on-stage. The crowd had filled in noticeably; the particularly strong showing from the city’s foreign contingent demonstrated how popular the three-piece is amongst Beijing's young expats. Lead singer and guitarist Hua Dong, the son of Nanjing intellectuals, has remarkable stage presence. He faces further towards bassist and co-vocalist Liu Min than towards the audience itself, and the give-and-take between the two helps to increase the act’s dramatic tension. Hua's speak-sing vocals, at times menacingly enunciated, at others delivered in a manic shriek, gain new intensity in a live setting, his skittish, tic-like movements evoking a younger (and Chinese) version of Ian Curtis or Morrissey. Liu on the other hand seems unflustered, winning fan boys with her good looks and icy, occasionally even melodic singing.
Re-TROS’ name arrived, according to an interview with Hua, from three disparate words, one of which each band member had chosen. From "rebuilding," "statues" and "rights", so the story goes, came "Rebuilding the Rights of Statues," as well as the clever acronym which one can't help but consider appropriate, given how faithfully the band draws from its heroes: namely, late 70s gothic rock and post-punk acts such as Bauhaus and Joy Division. Their sound is similarly miserable and tormented, each song building slowly and steadily upon drummer Ma Hui's locomotive rhythm and Li's deep, slinky bass, filled in by the raw white noise beauty of Hua's brittle guitar lines. And while it may be derivative in many ways, Re-TROS' sound is at least distinct from many of their Strokes-crazed Beijing peers, and carries an artful, intelligent depth that moves beyond mere primal punky expressiveness (not that that's necessarily a bad thing).
The tendency, it would seem, is to take Re-TROS gloomy motifs and discontent noise, and cast them upon a "post-Tiananmen nihilist" stage, where their music might suddenly come to represent all the pain and displacement of China's current generation of increasingly-globalized-but-still-repressed youth. Maybe, for some listeners, or even the band itself, they do. But such labeling proffers too neat a straitjacket, is simply too cut-and-dry for it to come across as anything more than "China can rock too!" journalist hyperbole. More importantly, it denies a talented group like Re-TROS the space to simply make great music, music which might very well be "anti-establishment," but doesn't have to wear the label like a Young Pioneer's kerchief.
That's certainly what they did at 2 Kolegas, and with the show coinciding with legendary Beijing glam rockers' Joyside's final gig, this listener for one would like to imagine that a baton is being passed towards bands as ambitious as Re-TROS, groups as eager to explore and scavenge through rock's past whilst making music that captures a complicated present and most uncertain future.
After the main set, the crowd called for more, and the band obliged with old single "Hang the Police." And while the crowd was largely hypnotized into head-bobbing absorption during the main set, they managed to work themselves into a heady little mosh pit for the finale, spurred on by the song's incendiary refrain.
Venue: 2 Kolegas - www.2kolegas.com
24 Hours: www.myspace.com/nopartypeople
Wu and the Side Effects: www.myspace.com/imnoteasygoing