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(At Least) 5 Lessons From Shanghai's Biggest "Festival Weekend"

Knowledge gems gleaned from the spectacles of Strawberry Festival, Boiler Room, JZ Spring, and more.
Last updated: 2016-05-04
A lot happened in and around Shanghai last weekend, including at least five music festivals and the inaugural edition of Boiler Room China. It has been difficult to process all of this, but it is important to look back and reflect in a city that is constantly aiming forward. These are some thoughts on last weekend. Feel free to share yours in the comments.

1) JZ and Jing'an District Stole the Show

Sunday afternoon in Jing'an Park was like a Georges Seurat painting taken over by Sesame Street. It was beautiful. Ostriches and bears wandered about in the sun as swing dancers swung in the square and a parade marched down the sidewalk flanked by bao'an, music notes bouncing off bubbles. Nearly 1000 people laid down on the grass to hear a very soulful dude sing about "the world has a lot of problems…but I just wanna get high [on life]." Elderly men played chess in the background, as weird uncles took pics with their expensive cameras and kids played on the playground. All was well. Branding was tame, sound was decent enough, and good times flowed.

It was just as chill as JZ Festival, but on a different level. With Shanghai's JZ Club closing next weekend after a ten year run, their future is uncertain. They might not be able to replicate the magic of that classic spot with their next venture, but if they can pull this kind of event off, in downtown Shanghai, for FREE, I've got faith.

2) Metal Kids Stay True When Everyone Else Moves on to Different Fads

Looking back, it's kind of sad to watch how China's oldest rock festival, MIDI retreated to the countryside. In 2010, they had huge festivals in Beijing, Shanghai's Century Park, and other prime spots. But by 2014, the Shanghai edition had been relegated to an area near the airport. I watched Wayne Static play one of his final shows there. The bathrooms were a mess that day, and people were rolling around in the mud and absolutely not giving a fuck. It has always been China's rawest -- and most rock'n'roll -- festival.

In 2016, the year after a well-publicized drug bust at their music school in Beijing, the only MIDI Festival left in China happens about 80km away from Shanghai, in Jiangsu Province. That's great news for rockers who live in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Jiangxi, of which there are many. And by all accounts, the fest was raging. I don't know many people who went, but one Shanghai lifer who was there says, "It was rock and roll, man! Lots of metal on the main stage. Like, death metal." Pictures on social media reveals that MIDI indeed had plenty of flares, fires, circle pits, and ragers. Didn't see any of that at Strawberry. With many festivals shifting to EDM, or people with laptops, MIDI was smart to shed the electronic stages (and the stratified crowd that brought) and just focus on rock. They didn't compromise with the music, and the true heads came out.

3a) Boiler Room Shanghai Has Great Taste in Coffees

Cha Cha & Aivilox

While their original headliner, Black Coffee, couldn't make it, Boiler Room Shanghai's brief and expensive drinks menu did include a frappuccino. Replacing the South African house producer was Disclosure, two white boys from the UK, fresh off their DJ set at Strawberry Festival. Disclosure - 2; The Prodigy - 0. Perhaps due in part to their addition, the venue -- a car club near the Cool Docks -- was packed with a largely young, foreign audience who got really, really into Disclosure's house music. Maybe 1,000 people turned up, many without the required registration, many drinking street beers outside. Where did all these kids come from? And where are they on a normal Friday or Saturday night, when the Stockholm Syndrome or Lost Cargo club nights have maybe 100-200 people? Why does it take a branded, corporate "international" event to get everyone dancing under one roof?

GOOOOOSE keeping it weird and doing the city proud

It's odd that bigger local crowds turn up to see obscure German goth bands or post-rock concerts at Mao Livehouse than for this, a supposed showcase of the hottest underground music in Shanghai and China. That said, supposedly 3 million people tuned in to watch Boiler Room live, and if that's the case, they've got an audience at least 50 times bigger than the total weekend attendance of Strawberry fest.

The Shanghai edition went much, much smoother than Beijing's, though Beijing's musical highs were higher. Beijing had no sound man, some foreign bros got on the mic and started cursing in Tianjin-hua, and the power went out in the whole venue. Shanghai's Funktion One soundsystem hit, but would have benefited from more speakers and subs around the room. Security did a fine job of keeping the crowds in line (and not smoking cigs) without being dicks about it.

In some ways, Boiler Room coming to Shanghai feels a bit like Robuchon's arrival -- too late, too out of touch. There's a few problems here. For one, it's an another "event" meant to symbolize Shanghai, the artists who live here, and their arrival on the international stage. Though he played probably the best set of the night, TZUSING isn't from Shanghai and doesn't live here half the year. The opener of the night, Billy Starman, lives in Beijing. I don't even know where Elvis T lives. So it seems weird that crucial Shanghai artists like Gary Wang, Siesta, Ben Huang, MHP, and Conrank were absent from the the lineup. Boiler Room Berlin had Jimmy Edgar, right? Hopefully those artists feature in future episodes, which we'll likely see because word on the streets is Boiler Room was pretty happy with the whole affair.

Second, these kind of events are always problematic because it's a sort of exploitative relationship -- the international brand and is here for money and to display their cutting-edge international-ness. They are the merchants of cool. The local artists are trying to reach larger audiences and "make it." What gets lost in all the bullshit is good times. I left near the end of Disclosure's set, missing some of the night's best sets.

3b) TZUSING, Kai Luen, Cha Cha & Aivilox, and Howie Lee Played The Most Memorable Sets, For Different Reasons

Enough philosophy. How about the sets? LeTV have done a fine job with video hosting and allowing those streaming comments. You can watch the whole Shanghai show, the entire Beijing show, or check out sets by all the individual artists.

First, Kai Luen (a.k.a. Soulspeak) absolutely absolutely murdered the dance in Beijing. Dude managed to party rock on all hardware and live instruments, which is no easy feat. His keyboard player killed it too.

Doing Shanghai proud for live sets was the hip hop and soul set by Cha Cha & Aivilox, and off-the-wall experimental vibes from GOOOOOSE.

Beijing producer and Do Hits label boss Howie Lee's music works much, much better live. Props to him and his drummer for making it through their set despite considerable challenges: no monitors, no sound man, drunk foreigners der-ing it up on the mic, and a full-on power outage. He did stop several times to curse at the lack of organization and ability to hear himself. Apparently they cut those outbursts from the live stream, but they're on the tape.

TZUSING had some great mixes, a memorable intro ("I don't smoke, I don't drink alcohol, I don't gamble…"), and that distinct, cold vibe his productions and club night are known for. But the best part of his set are his reactions to the girl spaz-dancing next to him, all up in the booth, for his entire set. Around minute 47, he drops a ghetto-house track that just keeps repeating "Bitch, go home, to your daddy and your mama." The girl keeps dancing, and the scene suddenly becomes contemporary art and it's brilliant on so many levels -- especially if the video suddenly cuts to one of LeTV's family-friendly ads for Oreos or sports drinks.

4) The Food Vendors at Strawberry Came From All Over China and Were Some Of The Chillest People at the Fest

By 8pm on Monday, with no Prodigy and a round, mohawked white bro who looked like a boss from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles blasting trap on the electronic stage, it seemed like a good time to chat up all the food vendors, who were not aware that The Prodigy couldn't make it. One crew was selling "Chinese pizza", which is actually duo pi, a breakfast food on the streets of Wuhan, the city they came from just for this fest. They didn't make any money on Monday but said Sunday was "very good." Next to them, a stall sold gou bu li baozi from Tianjin AND suan la fen from Chongqing. Why not. Alongside that stall was a woman and her husband who had traveled from Shaanxi in the north to sell that province's famous liang pi rice noodles and dim sum from Guangdong, including buns shaped like pigs, whose noses would squirt yellow custard when squeezed. Two crucial, ancient places in China, united under one food tent.

Like the festival itself, not everyone or everything was great (mystery BBQ, mystery sausage, cagey vendors), but the food was better than most street food in Shanghai, and more varied. Tried at least seven snacks and didn't get sick.

5)Some Things Are Mei Banfa, and Life Is How You Look at It

Killing the dancefloor. She's an English teacher who's been spotted at pool parties around town.

Really a lesson learned from JZ Fest in Expo Park last fall, but very applicable to Strawberry, which was far, far from an ideal music festival experience. How does one deal with a major disappointment, like finding out at the last minute that the act you came to see is not only not going to perform, but they are already IN China, stuck on a runway in Beijing. The first thought is "damn, they shoulda hopped on the high-speed train." But then, rockers with 3000 pounds of gear can't just "take a train." So you can either bail, as many did, or you can stay and try to make the best of a music festival on a rainy Monday night, which is what me and my buddy Jerry did.

"Sometimes, when something really kills the vibe of the fest like this, good bands can become great under the pressure" – Jerry

"See, they could really take it to the next level if they busted into a guitar or piano solo right now, but I don't think this whole band has one solo in them." – Jerry, again, speaking on Korean soft rock band Plastic Chocolate.

Plastic Chocolate never took it to the level of greatness, but the metal band playing on the Love Stage did. Yes, the long march to that stage absolutely sucked, but walking up the stairs, though the giant industrial entrance, and passing a shop called "HAIBAO" is a memorable way to enter a stage.

Strawberry didn't seem to have any plan for its festival-goers when Prodigy cancelled (not everyone was there for Prodigy anyway), and those who stayed were pretty much left to their own devices. We asked the friendly people at the "Inquiry Booth" (a nice idea for any festival – imagine if people asked really deep questions) what happened with Prodigy, and they said their plane got stuck and then offered us a cigarette. Sadly, replacement acts are not really possible in a world where every single song on the set list is scrutinized. Expo Park still smells nice, even if you couldn't wander the whole park dude to security barriers. Yes, the last, lonely beer tent was dry by 8pm, but the lady at the ice cream shop had a few cans of beer to sell for 10rmb. Security kicked people out of the food area and led them down a dark trail out of the venue around 9.15pm, but they weren't trying to be dicks, they were just following orders, and security isn't even on the promoter -- that's the venue.

"Whoa, that shop is called 'Rain Box.' Chill 'Box of Rain' reference – you don't see that often." - Jerry, again.

Again, when everything goes Mei Banfa, you gotta choose your own adventure. Life lessons.


The End. Feel free to share your festival weekend stories in the comments. PEACE.