Saturday, July 14, 2007

Japan Live In Taiwan (Grass Festival)

For the second year in a row I went to Taiwan to attend a music festival, this time Grass Festival, featuring dozens of of indie Taiwanese bands. My aim was to see as many of those bands as I could—while I enjoyed last year's Formoz festival tremendously, one of the things I regretted was I didn't check out more of the local groups (I spent a lot of time hanging out with Three Berry Icecream from Japan, and seeing the city). This year I was determined to focus on the local musicians.

Grass Festival is the brain-child of a guy named Yichin, who runs the indie Taiwanese label Silent Agreement. It took place about an hour and a half train ride south of Taipei, in the grounds of an elementary school that must qualify as having one of the world's most beautiful natural surroundings for a grammar school—between jungled hills and a blue-green sea.

Yichin set up the main stage next to the school's soccer field (thus, 'Grass' Festival), and placed other stages on the beach and the school auditorium (the one in the photo above with the portrait of Sun Yat-sen) and made classrooms into movie screening areas and a 'DJ class'. He also invited artists and craftsmen to set up stalls around the grass field to sell their goods. And he got something like 40 bands and solo musicians to play, all in one afternoon and evening (including my friends Yuyake Lamp and a group called Marikov from Japan).

I've been writing recently about wanting to see more events that aren't the usual, commonplace live house gigs, and by that standard, Grass Festival was ideal. I mean, this event took place at an elementary school in the Taiwanese country-side, brought together several dozen bands hand-picked by the owner of a super-cool Taipei indie label, and also allowed you to look at and buy arts and crafts made by locals. There wasn't much more I could ask for in terms of experiencing something new and different.

The festival wasn't perfect, however, and one of those imperfections for me was: nature. Taiwan is a sauna in the summer, and the sunlight is much stronger than in Tokyo. I attended Yuyake Lamp's rehearsal on the beach stage at 9:30 in the morning, and already, the sun's rays were piercing. The humidity caused sweat to pour out of me and wash away the suntan lotion, exposing my skin directly to the sun and turning me into a true Red-neck by noon. By 12:30, when the festival started, the combination of the sun and the heat was almost unbearable. The locals were smart though: many of them had brought big umbrellas to sit under during the hottest hours. Every inch of the shaded space around the stage was taken over by people escaping the sunlight. The beach stage was especially bad around noon: it was like watching a rock show in the Sahara. (Ironically, the band playing there at 2PM was called STAYCOOL...)

So, my concert-viewing activity in the early afternoon hours consisted of me standing in the sunlight as long as I could bear it so I could see the acts from the front, then scurrying for cover behind the stage, looking for someplace to sit in the shade. I did like what I heard though—a lot. One group I enjoyed was called Zhe Wei Taitai (這位太太), which I think means 'this wife'. They consisted of two female singers, who moved back and forth between melody and harmony parts, which were sweet and soothing, over an indie pop sound.

Zhe Wei Taitai

Almost every Taiwanese act I saw at the festival either played sitting down, or if standing, the performers didn't move around that much. I wasn't sure whether the lack of stage action was because the musicians invited to the festival were like that, laid-back, or whether performers in Taiwan generally have a low-key stage presence. My impression was that the musicians and audience valued most the vocal music parts, maybe more than the instrumental music or stage presentation, and that meant that moving around on the stage wasn't key. Taiwan seemed to be singing culture: every taxi I rode played popular Taiwanese songs (often old ones) on the radio, and the local Eslite record store had a big selection of enka CDs.

One unusual thing about Grass Festival was its, so to speak, Peter Pan quality. The theme of the festival was 'elementary school', and because this was its second year, it was officially called something like 'Grass Festival 2nd Grade'. They stamped on your arm a cherry blossom sign, the sort that a Taiwanese teacher might stamp on a well-written essay or error-free math quiz. And, I didn't see this myself, but between sets on the grass field, the organizers apparently had the audience do calisthenics or other types of school yard activities. Part of the reason for all this was because, well, the festival took place at a grammar school, but I wondered whether there was also nostalgia about childhood at work there, and if so, whether that was a big thing in Taiwan, or at least among the generations that went to this festival.

About 4PM it started to cool down, so that the umbrellas to avoid the sun could be put away, and the beach stage became comfortable, and then pleasant. Around then Marikov, a guitar group from Japan, played their 'urban folk'. Yuyake Lamp performed at 7PM, just as it was turning dark. By coincidence, fireworks went off above the stage just as they started, and because vocalist Yunn hopped around so much, almost losing her breath and becoming drenched in sweat, someone brought up to the stage tropical juice drinks for her and the two other players. It was a great show, one that I hoped created a few new fans of the band in Taiwan. Yunn said it was one of the best shows she'd done, and that she would remind herself of it to feel better if she ever became dejected about something.

Yuyake Lamp

Nylas, an interesting electronica trio consisting of a western guy and a Taiwanese guy and girl, played after Yuyake Lamp. I could only watch them part time because I was also involved in Yuyake's post-gig festivities, but I liked what I saw of Nylas. (Though, and this isn't Nylas' fault, I always feel that computer-based or DJ-based music performances are limited by the fact that the performers have to stay at a table, looking down at their equipment rather than the fans. Maybe someone should invent a movable desk that hangs from your shoulders that lets you walk around on stage...)

We left at 9:30 to take the second-to-last train back to Taipei, but because the train came by only every hour or two and practically everyone lived in Taipei, the train going back was as crowded as a rush-hour commuter express. Even worse, there happened to be another festival taking place that night on the same train line but closer to Taipei, and the revelers from that festival got on, making the train jam-packed with sweaty, sunburned humanity. The railroad personnel had to stop many people from getting on to our train because it was already filled to capacity. Incredibly, though, those people left on the platform, now having to wait another hour or more in the humid evening heat for the next train (and was there any guarantee that they could get on that train either?), rather than rioting or even complaining, started waving at those already on the train, waving 'bye bye, bye bye', and those inside the train waved back too. It was a strangely moving closing scene of a long day.

(Thanks a lot, E.J., Powei, Jelly and Cathy and Jubow of Dolly's Pillbox, for your great hospitality in Taipei!)

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