Memories of the sky

Way back at the beginning of last month I went to the Modern Sky Music Festival. In my previous post about it, I promised I would get around to telling about my two favorite bands there, 33 Dao (No. 33 Island) and Cold Fairyland (Lengku Xianjing). It’s about time I got around to fulfilling that promise.

After coming to China, these were two of the earliest bands I really liked, and they’re both from Shanghai. Cold Fairyland showed up in my internet searches as a promising “progressive” band mixing traditional Chinese music with jazz and rock. I listened to the sample tracks on their website and liked what I heard. I’ve since picked up copies of five of their albums, some of which steer a little close to New Age territory for my taste, but on the whole the combination of pipa and cello with guitar, bass and drums is fascinating. The name comes from the Chinese translation of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s novel Sekai no owari to Haadoboirudo Wandaarando (Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World in English), which I might add is a great book.

A long time ago I read a review of 33 Dao’s album, and it was one of those reviews where although it wasn’t completely positive, I could tell it was something I’d like. I bought a copy at the first opportunity and fell in love with its eccentric, artistic pop music. To my knowledge haven’t played in Beijing before, so I was very excited when I saw them listed on the festival schedule. Given how much of their album utilizes studio effects and non-musical sounds, I was very curious to see what they would be like live.

They came on after Ourself Beside Me’s abbreviated set. They’re a five piece, mostly lined up with two guitars, bass, keyboard, and drums, three of whom sing. One of the guitarists switched to bass for a while, leaving the bass player free to just sing.
As it turned out, the music worked quite well stripped of the studio manipulations. Most of the album’s female vocals were handled by bassist (Wu Shanmin if she’s the same one from the album credits), and leader/guitarist Zhang Zhendong was the male singer. Keyboard player Zhang Ling also sang from time to time. Guitarist Li Dong and drummer Yuan Chaozhen didn’t sing.
I get the impression they do not play live very frequently (I do watch Shanghai music listings, and almost never see them mentioned), and I have to admit they weren’t very exciting visually. Luckily the music made up for that shortcoming.
Their music is full of odd contrasts, with song sections resembling carnival music, and others like twisted rock, and they handled it all very well.
I think everything they played was taken from the album, with no new material. All in all, quite a wonderful experience.

I hung onto my spot against the security barrier, braving the nearby chain smokers and the annoying drunk kids to keep my good viewpoint for Cold Fairyland. I knew I didn’t have to worry about their music coming off well live, since I have their live album.

This was one of the best live music experiences of my time in China so far. Their music is so interesting, with diverse elements combined in interesting ways, and so well executed, that I was enraptured the whole time.
Leader Lin Di was at center stage with her pipa. She’s an excellent player, both flashy and melodic, taking from both tradition and her own sensibilities.
She occasionally put it down and stood to sing.
Cellist Zhou Shenan provided a low-end counterpoint to the pipa and guitar with her nifty electric instrument.
On the studio albums, most of the keyboards are played by Lin Di, but for this live show there was an added player. Guitarist Song Jianfeng often trades lead lines with the pipa.
They played a selection of tunes from several of their albums. I spoke briefly with Lin Di after the set and she said that their regular drummer had been unable to make the trip, so they played a shorter than usual set.
And here’s a short video I took of them performing “Liaoluan (Puzzle)”:

That was a great experience, and I really look forward to seeing them live again, hopefully with a full length set!

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