The Secret Machines: Music for the Brave

I showed up at MAO (Livehouse, understood) all panting and worried that I’m late as usual, but the soundcheck was still going on when I stepped in, so I missed nothing besides the opening band. What slapped me instantly was the awkward emptiness of the venue. I wasn’t expecting it to be packed, but I was hoping to see at least a few more heads venturing out, more thirsty throats at the bar. It turns out that in spite of the fairly extensive coverage provided by foreign media, only a few laowai were brave enough to head off to a concert of a nearly unknown band at a surely not pocket-friendly price (this was a major issue for many I think). There were even fewer intrepid Chinese, so go blame them. Other (and cheaper) events scattered throughout the city also accounted for the audience’s paucity.

Plus, the corny tunes this kid behind the decks kept playing while we were waiting seemed aimed exactly at wiping people off the dance floor. If he was actually aiming at making us so exasperated that we’d enjoy the show twice as much once it started…kudos.

No other venue was better suited than MAO for hosting this gig. The sound system was probably calibrated for a bigger audience, which made us absorb double the vibrations, but no biggie. Being underwhelmed would have been much worse.

The Secret Machines didn’t seem too intimidated by the scant attendance, and showed that right in our face with a mighty and well executed performance which rapidly offset the lack of company. They started off at moderate pace, but built to a crescendo. As the music unfolded, the public warmed up and flocked to the front of the dancefloor, heads dangling underneath the majestic soundfall unleashed with unquestionable savoir-faire. The thickness of the sonic texture and the breath-taking length of the tracks reminded me somehow of the MONO show, although the Secret Machines did use lyrics, seemed a bit less self-absorbed, and showed kind of a more traditional approach including – ouch – a certain indulgence towards overlapping choruses, which unavoidably make me frown. Their occasional lack in originality was however made up for by a pleasant scenic presence (ahem…guitarist) and by a professionalism rooted in passion and clever transversality.

Naturally, the band executed the evergreen hits from its repertory (“Underneath The Concrete”, “Atomic Heels”, “First Wave Intact”, and the relentless “The Fire Is Waiting”) but also offered a sneak-peek of their upcoming album with “Like I Can” and “Terrible Light”. They even left some time to unclench our ears with a crossfire of ballads (yes, to me it was a sort of violence). It took us some time to figure out that “Sad And Lonely” had gently faded into Neil Young’s “Out On The Weekend”. Surprise, surprise.

In the end, it was a concert for amateurs willing to plunge in and let themselves be dragged into a rock experience for “adults” in good faith and regardless of cost. The people who were there knew what to expect and they enjoyed it for what it was. Pity they weren’t many. Let’s blame it all on the global warming.

After the concert Josh (Garza, drums) told me that actually the crowd in Beijing had showed more enthusiasm from the beginning, whereas in Shanghai drawing the public closer to the feeling of music took a bit longer, but they finally unbuckled and joined the wave. So, mission accomplished.

After all, for bands like these that are still orbiting in the fuzzy galaxy of indie music, coming to China is a cutting-edge experience, an exciting incursion into new and exotic territories. Just this is worth the effort. By the sparkle I detected in his eyes I could tell that what he said was not mere lip service. If I’m wrong, then someone fetch me what he was on!

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