Independent China in Person

Most people have already commented on the Maybe Mars Showcase at MAO Livehouse last Saturday night and moved on, but I was busy this weekend and didn’t have time to collect my thoughts and put fingertips to keyboard until now.

To recap, the lineup was Birdstriking, a three-piece, kind of screamy, rock-type thingy; Guai Li (Strange Power), spacey, garage-y sourpusses; Carsick Cars, the old reliable station wagon; and AV Okubo, the souped-up sports car parked outside a pawn shop.

Birdstriking never really got a chance to show off their stuff. At least two songs were ruined due to a busted bass drum partway through their set, which also resulted in a ten-minute delay. They pulled out a below-average cover of Blur’s “Song 2,” also. However, I can’t really judge them on this performance, due to the break in momentum. Maybe they would have gone on to great heights, but, as things stood, they didn’t quite make it on this night. Too bad for them. I really felt bad for them and this is chance to scold MAO a little bit. Look, I don’t know what happened to the bass drum, but when was the last time you ever saw that happen? What else can go wrong with this place? More on MAO qualms in a bit.

Guai Li was on next and the bass drum came around. Their music is kind of hard to describe. It went in and out of little punky numbers into longer, sweeping rock epics. With an attractive (if skinny) female lead singer, this band should have been a slam dunk for me, but I never really entered the Guai Li fortress of solitude during their set. Something was  off-putting about the singer. First of all, either she’s not a very forceful singer or her vocals were not loud enough, or both. I could barely hear her at regular intervals. Second, she just didn’t look like she was having very much fun. Obviously, she doesn’t owe me or the rest of the audience anything, but that didn’t help to endear me to a band I was seeing for the first time. Some people have It (see: Pupi and Feng, Helen), some people don’t.

Carsick Cars pulled the old switcheroo with AV Okubo for some reason. I’m guessing it was because it was the first time people there could buy the new AV Okubo record Greed of Man, and they wanted to make it like a CD release event, but I think they screwed themselves over. The show got off to a late start, the two openers played really long sets (for openers), and people immediately began streaming out after Carsick Cars. It was kind of ridiculous. At one point I was standing near the door to the backstage area, waiting for AV Okubo to start. Then their bassist came out and we started to chat. As I was asking him questions, I realized he was supposed to be playing music! I told him he should probably start and he ducked back into the “dressing room.” They started pretty quick after that, but I found it funny.

So AV Okubo began and they were a little sluggish at the start, but they came around. I thought “Breakwave” came off nicely. I’m going to have to give their change of drummers a great big thumbs-down, not just because I like Lucky personally. The new (old) drummer does not have Lucky’s percussive and rhythmic force. Whatever spurred them to make the change, it has not improved the band.

I really enjoy the darkness of AV Okubo, but it also kind of unsettles me. Lots of bands have an anger to them, but you kind of don’t take it seriously. AV Okubo makes me feel like they are dealing with some real, industrial wasteland depression. At least they’ve got music, but if I ever see a story about a dude in a captain’s hat on a murderous rampage in Wuhan, I can’t say I will be terribly surprised.

I didn’t say much about Carsick Cars, but what’s to say? They are damn good. There’s a reason why they and P.K. 14 are considered the best bands in China right now. They are damn good. The difference between the two shows is that P.K. 14 took their headlining mantle seriously at the last showcase and gave a great performance in the right slot. It was like a heavyweight champion defending his title against the best possible challenger, whereas Carsick Cars ducked him and went against the glass-jawed journeyman. And why? Because Zhang Shouwang wanted to DJ a really short and not very interesting set at LOgO? I wish I did, but I just don’t understand it.

Finally, on to the continuing problems with MAO. I think they are suffering from an expectation problem, for which they are at least partially responsible. However, it must be said that we, as in Shanghai underground music fans, are also to blame. I for one know that I expected a lot from this venue when it was getting off the ground. We wanted it to be like Yuyintang with better sound and more capacity. Well, we got those things. We really did. There are a great many kinks to be ironed out (Is it true they don’t actually have a music license? Eegads.) However, as Kerouac said, “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.” I had a good time on Saturday night. It was better than a poke in the eye (with a broken beer bottle.)

Zhang Shouwang at LOgO

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  1. Jake

    Good points all. My moans about MAO aren’t meant to be pointless griping or me taking potshots at the venue due to some ulterior motive – it’s just because I want to see them succeed. My criticisms are born of frustration. MAO has the potential to be an amazing venue and when they fall short of that potential it annoys me.

    Regardless, I thought the bands were great on the whole. Birdstriking were unlucky (I’d like to see them again) and the others all showed why they’re held in such high regard. In fairness to Carsick Cars, I think you can either argue that they made a nice gesture by deferring to AV Okubo at the time of their album release or that that might actually have been the headlining slot. Given the times that they played at and how much of the crowd was left, Carsick Cars may have been put on third because at the time it counted as the headline slot. I think they do that in Beijing a fair bit – people go home earlier so the headlining band goes on third and then another band round out the night for those who are left.

    Either way, I think you’re right that PK14 still hold the mantle in that respect, but then they have been around longer (and one could argue deserve it more) and in fairness to Zhang Shouwang, I think he’s aware of it. Ask him about PK14 and he’s just as reverent as everyone else on the scene

  2. zack

    Hey, Jake

    Thanks for commenting.

    I have heard that the change was made on the day of the gig and was unexpected. It was, what? 12 when Carsick Cars started, past the witching hour. I didn’t really care, but it seems like a good move to catch the audience (as a younger band) when they are waiting for the heavies. I wonder whose idea it was. I’m not dissing Carsick Cars for that at all cuz they were and are great. They might just need to prevail more.

    I regards to MAO, yeah, we should have expectations. There’s like at least 5 venues that I can think of in my hometown that are better run, and that’s a dinky place compared to Shanghai. The scene is always gonna be wonky, it seems. It is great to have people constantly pushing places to go in a new scene. It’s an important job because (I hope, although we’re not speaking in the dominant language) managers read and listen to these bleats.

    Anybody know anything about prospective plans for the Red Town area to get bulldozed? I heard something about that today.


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