posted on April 26, 2007 06:02
A Monday night and an RMB350 ticket price to a rock concert in a club over a karaoke bar, next door to a dim sum restaurant. The taxi driver knew the dim sum restaurant – that’s how I found the club. Rushing to get there early, expecting big traffic jams – it’s Sonic Youth – you get a jolt on remembering hey, this is China and no more than one percent of this city of 17 million know who or what Sonic Youth are or that they’re playing in China’s capital tonight.
For those in the know, inside the Star Live, it was an it-event. Local godfather of yaogun (rock n roll) Cui Jian arrived wearing trademark red star baseball cap and army fatigues with a gaggle of wrinkling maybe groupies (his early 1990s period?) in tow. Like many of the local musicians he was in the house to see what he can learn. Down on the stage there were glitches, like when a blonde, catty looking Kim Gordon was left swearing after the mike failed to work for half her first song. She recovered and danced and demanded attention like a grunge goddess should.
"We've waited a long time for this," said shaggy haired guitarist Thurston Moore by way of greeting. He’s surely one of the few rock stars who changes his guitar but not the strap – the man is too tall. A lot of the pre-concert banter among the foreign fans was worries the group would go all experimental on Beijing and send everyone home. They didn’t. After opening with Candle from Daydream Nation and then followed it with another crowd pleaser, Incinerate. For much of the rest of the way it was mostly the best of the rest of the band’s long career, including plenty more from well received Daydream Nation album. To signal their approval the crowd dispatched a pair of long johns, of the kind beloved of most Chinese men, to the stage. There was plenty of applause and a couple of crowd surfs when Thurston got back to the mike for more head-bopping stuff. Like Teenage Riot for the first encore.
The band dedicated Kool Thing to "our friends Carsick Cars," adding, "sorry you couldn't perform." Local support act Carsick Cars had mysteriously been blocked from playing. Ministry of Culture’s orders, said the doorman when we asked on arrival at the venue. Others whispered it was something to do with Sonic Youth – not Carsick Cars – having played the Free Tibet concerts. A youthful love-them-or-hate them group of Beijingers, Carsick Cars even got a mention in the state press, as the locals lucky enough to play for superstars Sonic Youth, which made the late ban an even ruder surprise for the group, which learned their trade off bootleg Sonic Youth albums in Beijing school dorms.
Those in situ for the 8pm Carsick Cars slot were left waiting till 9.30pm, when Sonic Youth took the stage. Noone had thought to put a poster up on the door or to send a someone out with a bullhorn – a common sight at Chinese tourist sites and train stations. It was one of those elephant-in-the-corner moments when the powers that be in China put their foot down and no one wants to talk about it. It’s probably also down to the lousy service and lack of customer awareness that characterizes a lot of restaurants here.
Anyway, the lack of an opening act left time to buy beer and the red t-shirts with a masked Asian-looking nurse’s face which were produced by the concert’s local production company Split-T. Left overs from the band’s Nurse tour, said someone in the know. A steal for foreigners at RMB100 (ten euros) but you’ll get three tshirts in some of Beijing’s markets for that.
All the musicians present, like Xiao Rong from punks Brain Failure, were delighted that Sonic Youth were in Beijing. But most were all agreed the band wouldn’t be making any money off the dates. “Flight cases,” says Xiao Rong. Brain Failure travel take their guitars as carry on luggage and borrow amps and drums when they tour. Sonic Youth and NOFX, which played Beijing shortly before, carry a few trailer loads of gear wherever they fly. Payable if you have a string of dates in 5,000 – 10,000 capacity venues, but not in China where the clubs the band played fit no more than 2,000 people.
Still, this was probably the first time Beijing has filled a decent venue for a decent international rock act. Suede played a third-filled Chaoyang Gymnasium in 2003 and the following year Deep Purple were giving away tickets outside another fairly ill-suited venue -the Worker's Gymnasium - for their loss-making show. The Rolling Stones and James Brown in the past year played money-mad Shanghai, to 90 percent expat turn-outs. More ...
Despite some local press and blogs calling the crowd at 80 percent Chinese, the Sonic Youth Beijing show was more like 60 percent foreign, 40 percent local. The security took tickets and then employed elaborate infra-red torches to check people back in after a trip to the toilet.
What it all means is hard to tell. Consider that a full day’s music at Beijing’s Midi experimental music festival (of which more anon) costs RMB50, the show was more a came-and-be seen moment rather than a came-and-conquered-China event. It was a great show, but my favourite memory is of local lecturer and music guru Michael Petis – he runs the D-22 club and hired Sonic Youth as a house band for a club in New York in the 1980s – waiting outside with a spare ticket to pass on to one of the many Chinese musicians who couldn’t afford the ticket price.