“We might be the minority around here, but we’re all here,” said Zhangjiakou resident Xiao Yue of rock fans. Photo: James Tiscione/GT
"Who here is from Hebei? Let me hear you!" The screams for Cui Jian on the chilly grasslands of Zhangbei were solid evidence that local crowds dominated this year's InMusic Festival, the culminating factor for why the three-day event's vibe was grittier than elsewhere this year.
"Put it this way, northeastern rock fans are way more intense," said Twisted Machine frontman Liang Liang backstage. Their growing unruliness (or intense rocking out, depending how you swing), flinging full bottles and climbing barriers was as much of a spectacle as the bands. "In the South, after a show, people just quietly head out and go home. But up here, after any show they're waiting for you, looking to drink and party."
Early drizzle didn't slow fans or deter campers, while the rolling fog intensified Hebei rockers Omnipotent Youth Hotel's set and aided US alt-metal sextet Ill Nino to conjure a midnight mosh in the mud after material from their first album, Revolucion.
"I mean, you're not here to sit on the couch and watch TV," said SUBS frontwoman Kang Mao, anticipating a waterlogged performance.
Headliner Xu Wei apologetically opened with "Time (Shiguang)" after starting over an hour late but Xu won back the crowd by delivering a professional performance of his rock-lite tunes, bringing in tow an all-star backing band, including ex-Chao Zai guitarist Li Yanliang.
Although the weather cleared up to ideal blue skies the second day, if anything dampened the mood, it was the hours of backed-up traffic on the serpentine road to the festival grounds. Some complained they had been in gridlock for 45 minutes, without moving a meter.
But traffic wasn't just an inconvenience. The festival lineup was pushed back hours due to artists stranded in the traffic - and the crowd was having none of it. Dongbei rock masters Second Hand Rose took to the stage amid a heavy salvo of hurled water bottles and a front-row yelling, "Asshole festival, asshole Second Hand Rose".
"We're assholes for being late, so if you're gonna f**king curse us, do it louder!" said frontman Liang Long, which immediately prompted one woman to take her children and leave. Liang had forgone his regular transvestite garb for a Kuomintang-meets-Sergeant-Pepper uniform, immediately ripping into "Huai Dongxi." By third song "Qing Chun," the cries were positive, if just as profance ("Niubi!").
Headliner Wang Feng, a now poppier shadow of his former rock self, stuck to popular classics such as "Chun Tian Li," while hushing the audience for a moment of silence for the victims of the train accident in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province. Wang later announced festival attendance had hit 50,000 - but, as we know from past festivals, official numbers are always lovingly inflated.
"We've come every year," said one local, surnamed Zhao, huffing it on foot past traffic around 11 the night before to see Xu Wei. When asked about tickets, he smiled. "I've never bought one."
With the exception of Beijing-based Nanwu, who kicked off the last day with rare edge, crowds had thinned and the lineup lulled (Taiwanese chanteuse Singersen a particular low). But anticipation for rock idol Xie Tian Xiao meant his honed guitar sound filled the plains with Rage-inspired riffs on closer "Who brought me here?"
Things started to go south again soon after. From the dimly lit stage, the mystique surrounding UK trip-hop legend Tricky seemed enough to draw a crowd 10-times larger than his first InMusic appearance in 2009 (about 500 showed up then, due to bad scheduling) but the lukewarm reception suggested they had already forgotten him. Furthermore, his set was plagued with muddy sound, feedback and bad monitors, one apparently ruined by hurled water bottles. And Tricky wasn't happy about it. "I wouldn't go in there if you don't want your head bitten off," said Tricky vocalist Costanza on the way to the VIP room.
But it was during the wait for closer Cui Jian that authorities finally lost control - a steady stream of bottles pounded the stage, barriers were scaled and a full-on brawl broke out in the crowd. Only then were police were dispatched to break it up and eject the instigators.
Surprisingly it wasn't security who reined in the crowd but rather a tender talking-to from an avuncular Cui, who continued his rather short set free of projectiles, playing rarity "Huanchong" to "Nothing to My Name."
Overall, Zhangbei had somewhat cleaned up it's act - the grass was longer thanks to recent rains, organizers offered a huge food court that was mostly chuanr, 10-yuan beer, and squadrons of young volunteers trying to pick up after careless fans. But the music, and the passion it awoke, is what distinguished this year's Zhangbei.
"These wild crowds are what its all about," said local factory worker Li Buxin, who took the day off work to check out Xu Wei. "People come to festivals once a year for the same reason they listen to rock in the first place - for a release."