Article by Tim King
Music festivals are a strange beast. During the summer in the US, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a music festival, big or small, in every state of the Union. Sometimes though, it can seem like the “music” part of the festival is secondary. Friends of mine go to Coachella every year, not exactly for the music but for ritual, an experience that has built up over time to one of spiritual escape for a long weekend. On the other side of the coin, a band I love got banned from the Warped Tour a decade ago for using their spot on the stage to proselytize the audience against the traveling punk music showcase, claiming that such a festival sucked all the oxygen out of local scenes and prevented them from starting fires of their own.
Which is it? Putting the two viewpoints together, one gets the impression that music festivals are great for screwing around, with the music aspect being inconsequential at best, harmful to grassroots music at worst. Dichotomy is cool and everything, but there is a third option.
To the untrained eye, it doesn’t seem like a lot of western or alternative music comes through Xi’an. If you look at the lineups for any of the bigger Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong livehouses, you’ll see a lot going on. Venerated Japanese bands like Envy and Mono somewhat regularly amble through there on the East Asia legs of their tours; Canadian celebration-rockers Japandroids lit up Hong Kong three years ago; bigger and bigger bands like Iron Maiden are crashing stages in Shanghai’s arenas.
So, what has Xi’an gotten? In my short memory, the biggest western names I can remember are Cat Power playing at the Xi’an Concert Hall, two Scandinavian post-rock bands [EF and pg.lost] at Aperture, human drum machine Jojo Mayer and an exhibition by speed-demon guitarist Michael Angelo Batio, a man who looks like he was abandoned by Motley Crue on the side of the highway in Iowa and plays his instrument about the same way.
Just like it is in the US, where I saw a windfall of spectacular bands both big and small by virtue of being close to Boston on that East Coast corridor and my friends in middle America saw little of that, most foreign bands touring through China dance their way up the coastline, get theirs, and get the hell out of Dodge. Even comparing historical headliners from the Strawberry Music Festival, Beijing and Shanghai has seen Dinosaur Jr., the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Prodigy, and more, none of which have made their way to our neck of the woods.
While we could lament this imbalance, keeping fingers crossed and thinking “if only,” that ultimately ends up being wasted energy. What we need is to reorient our thinking as a community of music lovers, and this is where Strawberry shows itself as the third way a music festival can impact a scene: by letting you know it’s there.
Strawberry Xi’an had three stages this year—less than half that of its Beijing sister festival. Xi’an had less bands in general and 100% fewer foreign bands. You know what we did have though? We had stalwarts from around the country, like New Pants (新裤子) and Rolling Bowling, we had surprises like Wu Tiao Ren (五条人) who started their set sounding like Gogol Bordello on Quaaludes and ended sounding like the Reverend Horton Heat and an entire stage of local acts, which, notably, other iterations of the festival didn’t have this year.
We also had a crowd of people, mostly locals, who fought the rain on Saturday and basked in the sunshine on Sunday to hear some music. There was a mishmash of metal, reggae, hip hop, punk, indie, new wave, electronic, folk and pop, and people were seeing all of it. I saw punks with dreadlocks watching pop bands, girls in their prettiest makeup and sundresses headbanging to metal and a five-year-old throwing up the devil horns at whatever she heard. The like-clockwork exodus between the smaller Xi’an and Love stages when a new band would start their set was funny for its lemming-esque spectacle, somewhat disheartening for a band’s crowd to empty before they finished, but ultimately amazing to see a mass of people led by their ears; open-minded and willing to hear everyone who took the stage, no matter how briefly.
This is what Strawberry means here. It’s a large-scale music festival that, in Xi’an, is quite possibly at its most intimate; one that puts music at the forefront and makes sure you’re never out of earshot of what could be your new favorite band. The best part is that none of what you hear is hiding from you any more than you’re not searching for it. The festival doesn’t suck the air out of the local scene but rather seems to galvanize it, to put it on display and show concert-goers everything they didn’t know was happening in their backyard. Going to Strawberry, for locals and laowai alike, is an open invitation for you to broaden your horizons. It’s a gateway drug to a world of Chinese alternative music you might not have realized was so thriving and innovative. All that’s required of you is to show up and listen.