Modern Sky Festival 2010 – Part I

Ankur debuts on Layabozi with a review of Modern Sky Festival, published in collaboration with RockinChina.

Music is the key to a good music festival. It should be pretty obvious. If you don’t have good bands you can’t have a good festival. Actually scratch that. If you don’t have bands that can play live well with great stage presence the best you can hope for is a mediocre festival. That may seem too harsh for the blossoming Chinese festival scene, but I think it’s the truth and therefore necessary it be said.

Modern Sky was a three day music festival boasting four stages and a variety of music from October 2nd to the 4th. The festival in it’s fourth year had good things, and a few things that I hope they’ll improve for future events. The overall experience was relaxed and fun, but left me looking for a bit more.

Let’s start with the short list. The good. I really enjoyed the layout and stage set up of the whole festival. There were a lot of little details that as a patron you don’t think about that were carefully considered and done. I have been to a lot of festivals and the toilets for one are always a huge issue. They provided for the crowd while keeping things relatively clean, easily accessible, and they not an eyesore. There were booths for small vendors, a food area, a small stage for Cha to have cross talk performances, a Jägermeister tent with another DJ, a Converse sponsored skate ramp and booth, and an Absolute vodka booth. They had quite a few things going on other than music. The supporting items, as I like to think of them as.

The other thing that the organizers did well was staggering the schedule on the stages. If you were really determined you could actually catch part of each bands set on each stage. Sure it would be a lot of work but you could if you wanted to. And I appreciate it, because how many times have you been to a festival and wanted to see two bands at the same time?

It seems to me that bands no longer introduce themselves. Why? Should we already know who you are? The Modern Sky organizers did a great job on the Sky Stage by, between sets, putting up a graphic on the screens letting you know who was going to come up next on that stage. I was so happy to see that. I just wish they had done that on all the stages. If they had, I would know who was one of the best bands on the Badhead Stage were (I’ll get back to that later though).

Finally they resolved the little things quickly. I have worked on festivals before and been to many live shows to know that nothing ever goes the way it’s supposed to. There are always issues. The key is how quickly and professionally you respond to these issues. The staff at Modern Sky was very professional and took care of the few small issues I noticed right away. And that shows a lot of promises.

Now for the not good things. The style of music and the energy of the bands at a festival dictate a lot of things. Any live show should have a bit of energy and showmanship to it that is missing in the recorded version. That’s why people go to live shows, for the experience. But what happens when you have a show and none of the artist has a stage presence that transfers to the audience creating a connection between the two to make a joined experience? You get a pretty boring show. That’s what happened to Modern Sky. Going in, looking at the line up, and arriving on the first day and seeing the layout I was stoked for the music to begin.

The music lineup should not just be in increasing order of popularity but of skill and presence as well. I don’t like how in China just because a band is foreign they get top billing. All of the headliners at Modern Sky were foreign bands that were of a lesser caliber than many of the Chinese bands they had playing as well. It’s a sign when the best band of the day is the opening act on a stage. That’s what happened on Sunday. The best band of the festival was on the Modern Stage at 3pm and hugely unnoticed by most of the people who arrived later or were trying to find things to do at that time. I’m sure you can find lots of people who will tell you that people were bouncing around and there was mashing and such going on, but there are always those who will party for any sound just because. And while I accept that perhaps not all the bands played my kind of music, I can admit when even a band I don’t like for their music has a great live set. It’s something intangible that you can feel. I just wasn’t feeling it often enough at Modern Sky.

Lots of events now have those supporting items, as I call them, for the people who don’t like the music at a particular time. The key with such things is the interactivity. They have to be just like the music, in some way interactive with the audience either physically or emotionally or just by presenting the notion of interactivity. With such a huge venue there were lots of stalls around with a majority of them around the Sky Stage and Badhead Stage being empty. Beijing being such a huge up and coming city of international art with a huge scene in specialized districts like 798 why not open up some space for some artists to do small inhalation pieces or interactive pieces? It’s a great way to promote the symbiosis that is the actual Beijing art and music scene. The closest thing to art was provided in the form of a chalkboard wall by the Converse building. It’s a shame that the local art scene isn’t tapped to provide open source interactive elements, which could be quite interesting. Especially since it seems to me that the art scene and music scene are growing together through a symbiotic relationship in China. Why not bring that same symbiosis to festivals?

Now with all my griping it may be hard to tell but there were a few bands that did have a great energy and presence. Black Head a hip-hop band from Xian was the break out hit on Saturday for me, a band consisting of two acoustic guitarists, a drummer, a bassist, and a harmonica-playing singer. They came out with a great old sound mixed in with some modern punk/ska styling and just layered hip-hop vocals over it. I actually went to just check them out to see what Chinese hip-hop sounded like only to stay for the whole set cause they just blew me away with their sound. It’s a shame their performance was at 3pm when most of the crowd was dispersed or hadn’t arrived yet. Which seems to be the story repeatedly with the best of Modern Sky 2010.

Sunday had a gem hidden away on the Badhead Stage. Now due to some time (again being the early afternoon) issues and the bands not announcing who they are I have no idea which band it was! Why can’t they say who they are?! It was either Alt Senior or Today is Autumn. Now I have spent a lot of time online trying to figure this out. While it seems to me it is most likely Alt Senior I can’t recall them having a white drummer. This is a huge bummer. Either way if you were lucky enough to catch a band with a great rock sound and style that had great stage presence on the Badhead Stage you probably saw them. In case you need to narrow it down they actually even donned horse, unicorn, and zebra heads at one point in the set playing and singing with large helmets almost half a meter tall on their heads in the shapes of those animals. It was impressive to see a band go that extra bit for a live show for the audience. If anyone knows what band they actually were I would love to really know. Anyway, that’s the kind of showmanship you expect to have at a live show. Something a bit extra for the fans.

Monday brought the most energetic and fun line-up of the festival for me. Hedgehog a band I have wanted to see for quite some time thanks to its pint sized ferocious drummer, they did not disappoint me. I just wish my Chinese had been better to understand the speech the singer made about his guitar and the meaning behind it before he smashed it to bits and threw it into the crowd. He was clearly being interactive with the crowd, and they really seemed to appreciate and love him for it. They played a nice energetic set egging the crowd on to dance and go nuts with them. Not to be outdone the pint sized powerhouse drummer threw flowers into the crowd after the show to all her adoring male fans. It was kooky, fun, and I liked it. I’m actually a bit jealous for not getting a flower myself.

By far the best band of the festival was the opening act Monday on the Modern Stage, Go Chic. It’s hard to be the first band on at 2pm. A lot of people are still a bit apathetic and waiting around for the bigger bands. So what do you do? Take notes from the lead singer, Ariel of Go Chic if you are in a band.
Ariel: “Are you ready to party?”
Crowd apathetically: “yeah…”
Ariel: “I can’t hear you”
Crowd still not caring: “yeah!…”
Ariel: “FUCK YOU!”
BAMN! And off they went. If you weren’t ready to party Go Chic brought the party weather and didn’t care if you were joining in. Even if you didn’t like their style of music you couldn’t help but be impressed by their energy and in-your-face antics. As the singer was singing about getting higher and higher she was climbing the scaffolding and when you thought its high enough she went higher holding the mike and singing with one hand and climbing with the other. Just when you thought she was done she jumped off the stage and kept on singing in front of the crowd all the while stealing the hats of the police along the barrier. Done yet? Nope. All the while she was singing and the band was playing hard and fast electro-pop punk. Next thing you know she was back on stage but now where is she gone? She reappeared in the mosh pit  inciting to knock it around with her fans. Not only is all that great for a show as a viewer but it got everyone to be interactively participating in the show. And not just the crowd as she ran around and made everyone wake up and realize that the show had started the stage crew ran behind her constantly having to untangle wires and keep her from falling off things and jumping and climbing over things. And that’s what people go to live shows for. What did she do at the end? Tell everyone to go buy the band’s CD and shirts. Flip everyone off and climb the fence back over the crowd. Now that’s a badass show. Within minutes of their set ending the booth with Go Chic’s CDs and shirts was over run and sold everything out. That’s what happens when you give a performance like that. The crowd wakes up and responds. I hope bands start to realize that when you play a live show you don’t just stand around and play as if you were rehearsing in your basement studio, but rather you have to give the crowd something and they will give you something back too. As far as their music goes though I have no idea, I was so caught up in the performance and energy I vaguely recall thinking those are some good lyrics. I came home hunted them down on the Internet and gave them a closer listen and even though they aren’t everything I like in my music I’m a fan because they totally won me over with their live performance.

I know that not all types of music and artist are going to climb rafters and yell and scream. I don’t expect that either. I just want the band to say “hey here we are for your entertainment and we’re going to be entertaining”. After all if it weren’t for the crowd and fans they wouldn’t be making music in the first place.

So all in all yes I had a great time at Modern Sky. I got to hang out with some friends, be out doors, listen to music, and enjoy a few days off from my normal life. Does that mean it couldn’t be better? Of course not, but I’ll let you know how they do on improvements in the spring.

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  1. Ankur

    So after much searching I think my initial guesses as to the mystery band on the Badhead stage are wrong. At this point im 95% sure the horse head donning band was actually in fact, Matzka & 13 Band. Can anyone actually confirm this though?

  2. Jay

    The speech from Hedgehog front mant was kind of like this:
    “These days it’s important for a Chinese band to be fashionable. Sometimes more important than playing good live. We are not so fashionable, so needed to do something. That’s why I got this guitar. See? It says ‘So Fashion.’ Now we are fashion, too.”

  3. Ankur

    @ Jay Thanks so much for that. It just improved my thoughts on their already great performance.

  4. mache

    It’s true that nobody goes to a concert to be bored, of course, a good show is important. But there’s a problem when the main objective of a band is to satisfy the hunger for party of the crowd; those are bands that are there to suck attention like vampires, to be “cover-rock-stars”. The performance on the stage must be good, but terrible music can not be hidden behind the craziest acts. Jimmy Hendrix and The Who started to burn guitars once they knew how to play even with their toes.
    In China we like to show off, and rock likes it too, a lot! So I think this is a risky zone, we can’t afford more guitars breaking if the music does not get better.

  5. shaun/tenzenmen

    i wasn’t there but you review paints a great picture and i can appreciate all the points, good and bad.

  6. Ankur

    @ Mache
    You are right in saying that musicians should be talented and have a good music basis before working on stunning and mind blowing live performances. I completely agree with you. However, the bands playing Modern Sky should be fairly proficient musically. If not then why are then even playing the festival? I understand that my comments may have been misconstrued a bit. The thing is that I can overlook a lot of things. I can overlook the poor job the front of house sound guys did. I can overlook all the empty stalls for vendors. The reason I can’t pardon the lackluster performances is because that’s the only thing that the festival had to offer at the end of it all and it didn’t even do that successfully.
    I talked to several foreigners who were at the festival on different days and the list of grievances they had were similar to mine. I talked to people from America, Poland, Germany, and Australia. The general feelings were that there was just no energy about the whole festival. It was a very relaxed atmosphere, too relaxed. To quote one of them “There just wasn’t a single band that came on stage and rocked my brains out.” For China’s growing music scene its not enough to have a festival with the highlights being the foreign bands. There is a lot of great talent here in China, why aren’t organizers tapping them for better line-ups? Most of the big foreign bands were just subpar. From the Brett Anderson fiasco to Blond Redhead there wasn’t a headliner that was appropriate for the kind of event that Modern Sky was trying to be.
    I’m not asking for them to bring better foreign bands. In fact I would much rather see them give top billing to worthy local bands. There are a lot of them out there and they don’t get the recognition they deserve. The best bands of the whole festival were buried in the line-up. All of my personal top choices were Chinese bands. The best foreign band was House De Rackett, which was also early in the day.
    Bands don’t have to create a party, they just have to entertain and be worth listening to. It’s the festival organizers job to create an appropriate line-up by picking the right bands for the right feel and sound of the festival. The organizers almost sign into an unspoken contract with the patron when they buy a ticket. They say “We the organizers promise that we have done the best to our capabilities to provide you the audience with the best possible bands and entertainment at the best quality that we can.” And there lies my problem; Modern Sky just didn’t deliver on their end of the bargain.

  7. Ankur

    And to steal a great line from Simon, “Chinese Youth! Pick up those instruments and use them to slay your idols. I’m waiting. I know you can do it. I believe in you.”

  8. shaun/tenzenmen

    “Chinese Youth! Pick up those instruments and use them to slay your idols. I’m waiting. I know you can do it. I believe in you.” – exactly the line I posted to my facebook status when pointing them here!

  9. Ankur

    @ shaun/tenzenmen I cant take credit for that line. It was borrowed from Simon, who reviewed Modern Sky as well. Make sure to read his take on the festival as well under Modern Sky Festival 2010 – Part II

  10. David

    Hmmm… Go Chic gets raves from many quarters and it sounds like they have the proper FU attitude for a “bored” crowd. Thanks for the write up. It seems there’s a lot of coverage out there of Beijing festivals but so many of the more regional ones get little English-language coverage. I wonder if people get more fired up about live music at this point out in the provinces whereas a more jaded Beijing crowd needs more? Anyway, we’ve got a couple of festival reviews up, one of Yunnan’s Snow Mountain Festival and the other on the Nanjing International Music Festival. Sounds like the levels of musicianship may not have been tops but there was passion out there…


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