A Canadian In Beijing: Live Music in China’s Capital

Mao Live House is smoky and cavernous. It’s only ten after eight in the evening but there are already a few people lingering along the edges and the door staff were poised and ready to take my thirty kuai cover charge to see these three bands tonight. I was welcomed in English, which isn’t uncommon where ticket prices are higher than average, but I responded in Chinese and paid willingly to support the local artists. (Thirty kuai, after all, is only about $4.50 Canadian, a steal for three live acts on the same night!)

This venue is known as the best sounding live music venue in town and it definitely has the equipment to prove it. It is owned by a Japanese company and, according to Traci (a.k.a. my Beijing informant: an American woman who has been living here for thirteen years), it was outfitted by the same company with state-of-the-art sound equipment and a Japanese sound tech to go with it.

Said sound tech looks sullen behind the sound desk. There’s a Madonna-esque pop song blaring through the sound system as he puffs at his endless cigarette and seems suspended in his cloud of droopy boredom. Head leaning into his bent arm, floppy hat forming a canopy over his eyebrows, long black hair in a messy ponytail at the nape of his neck. He looks just like any sound guy in any city. In fact, maybe even livelier than some!

The floor of the venue has three levels, each separated by an iron railing save the walkway between them. The uppermost at the back of the room is equipped with chairs and a small table and I am told that this is the media section. It is reserved for media during big shows when interviews are needed or a filming section is required that is a few feet about the crowd. Tonight, however, there are no media people and this section is open.

I opt for the pit instead. I want to see every little detail.

This place would suit a punk show for sure with its grey cement floors, near complete absence of seating and the black walls and railings and stage. Save the “MAO” logo on the rear wall of the stage, there is no wall decoration at all. Very fitting! I’m sure Chairman Mao would have approved of these interior design choices.

More people trail in with cigarettes in hand to thicken the air and help out the lights. Several non-Chinese as well and I notice shopping bags and other tourist paraphernalia like maps, cameras and a Mandarin phrase book tucked in one of the girl’s coat pocket.

In this case and without being able to hear the language being spoken above the pounding pop music, I think can safely identify this small group as “foreigners.” I am careful about using this word as a result of the large ex-pat community here and the possibility that many non-Chinese people may have been born and bred here, not to mention the biracial community that is often mistaken as foreign in their own country.

I return my gaze to the stage that is outfitted with a shiny new “Canopus” drum kit (a brand I have never heard of), two Marshall stacks and a Fender twin (electric guitar amps) and an Ampeg bass amp. Traci tells me that all venues are equipped here. Bands don’t need to bring their own amps or drum kits to their shows. Transitions between bands are smooth as a result and the sound is consistent all night.

This makes me think of some venues in Manhattan that offer this level of “backline” (the industry word for equipment provided by the venue or event.) In New York, it’s in response to both limited parking on the streets and limited space in the venue to store three sets of band equipment between sets each night. I’m assuming this is part of the motivation here, as well. Traci is surprised to hear that this is not how it’s done in most parts of North America.

The music begins at about 8:45. This venue starts early to accommodate the average attendees’ dependency on public transit. To get back to Wudaokou from Guloudongdajie on the subway, I would have to leave at 10:40pm on the last northbound yellow line train. That’s impossibly early in most live music circles. Tonight, I can make it if I choose to leave just before the end of the third act and I’m grateful for the option.

The first act is Zhang Tie (pictured in the first photograph), a singer-songwriter in the pop-rock genre with an amazing voice. His band is tight and practiced and the arrangements keep my ears alert. They’re all talented and serious players who handle the diversity between the songs with “mei guanxi” (no problems). The songs range from slow ballads to driving rock riffs and I’m relieved at how much I enjoy his performance and can appreciate the talent on stage.

Zhengtie is Traci’s boyfriend and I’ve heard a lot about him. He is the first fellow artist in China that I have met here. I have been invited to jam and hang out with his friends this coming week and this will hopefully lead me closer to my research goals with this trip re: women in music in China.

It starts with one contact and leads to a community.

The second group was a hard rock and reggae infused band called Ma Ya. They were highly entertaining and got the crowd dancing and excited. Some of the riffs were daring and original with melodic bass lines and shifting time signatures.

Finally, the night ended with Bu Yi whose mixture of rock and traditional folk was moving and beautiful. The drummer, an amazing backing vocalist as well, even stopped playing during a breakdown section and played a melodica in harmony with the electric guitar. The sudden absence of drums and the introduction of a new sound for just twelve bars was a refreshing performance move. The audience held their breath for the section and then went crazy with applause when it ended and the groove resumed.

I gently joked with my new friends about the rock’n roll drama on stage. In fact, in a room that holds at least three hundred people comfortably, there weren’t more than about seventy-five people in attendance. Despite the low attendance, the rock moves were in full form. There wasn’t a droplet of energy lost in response to low numbers, which I respect and appreciate from the fan’s perspective. Still, my friend’s response was: “Well, that’s so Chinese. This is the Chinese rock scene!” I’m not sure what that means, but my cheeky response was lost in the screaming amplifiers: “I wonder if the moves make you rock harder?”

When the last band ended, it was only eleven o’clock. The crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk and gathered in small overlapping circle to smoke and chat and to eventually be carried off by the constant stream of cabs. I exchanged mobile numbers with my new friends and waved goodbye after promises to get together for jams, gear shopping and language exchange conversation. Zhengtie even loaned me his acoustic guitar for my show this Sunday.

Oh, did I forget to mention that I have a gig on Sunday? It’s at a venue called Yugong Yishan. I’m doing a solo opening set before a Chinese folk-rock act. I landed the gig during my first few days here after meeting Traci who promptly introduced me to the venue’s booking rep. In fact, I will be performing again at the same venue on May 23rd. Be on the lookout for some brief gig reports for any of you travellers who happen to also be performers!

My first experience with live music in China was fantastic. Of course, it won’t be my last!