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Hong Kong band The Sleeves will be playing at the Wanch during the H2 Live Music Festival.

Where Hong Kong’s budding bands can feel like rock stars

Wan Chai music institution The Wanch is hosting another H2 Live Music Festival this week, and co-owner Keith Goodman says newcomers will be among an eclectic line-up of 76 bands

Keith Goodman wants bands playing the H2 Live Music Festival at The Wanch for the first time to know that he has got their back – and that regular punters can feel the same way too.

Goodman has been at both ends of the room – up on stage and down by the bar – so he knows how to be both the entertainer and the entertained.

“There’s nothing worse than getting that first song started but, by the third song, you’re acting like a rock star,” says Goodman, The Wanch’s co-owner and director of this week’s H2 festival.

“We’re all about making the people feel like rock stars. The crowd appreciates that, too. That’s the beauty of The Wanch. It’s not just sitting at a table with the same three people you came in with. It’s more like a congregation coming together.”

This year’s edition of the H2 festival again promises an eclectic mix, with 76 artists playing the Wan Chai venue over seven days and nights from today.

Wanch co-owner Keith Goodman, director of the H2 festival
Over one night and 10 bands you’ll love one or two, hate one or two, two or three will be meh, and one will be quirky
Keith Goodman

As with previous editions, there’s a sense of adventure surrounding the line-up – and in the way Goodman and his team present them to the public. The bands – both the knowns and the unknowns – have described their sound for the festival’s main flyer. And it adds to the intrigue. Hence Ailee Slater promises “bad-ass ukulele songs” to kick off the festival, while, later, the promise from Sothiac is “psychedelic doom in the castle of drone”.

Goodman’s band, Brit-rock-influenced outfit The Sleeves, will also be playing, along with some of the city’s best known indie names, such as psychedelic dance rock band Shumking Mansion and punk-metal act Weeper, and a smattering of overseas acts, including Cambodian country punkers Tango and Snatch.

“I’d be pretty confident that over one night and 10 bands you’ll love one or two, hate one or two, two or three will be meh, and one will be quirky,” says Goodman. “It’ll happen so fast that your feet won’t touch the ground.

“It’s easy to pick the bands that we see during the year, and we want to do that to some extent because they’re the bands that are supporting the venue. They’re our bread and butter. But at the same time there are so many bands in Hong Kong trying to break into so few venues. So the festival gives us a chance to see bands we might not otherwise see.”

Psychedelic dance rock band Shumking Mansion. Photo: Kent Foran
With the city awash in memories of times and venues past, The Wanch remains one of the city’s great survivors, having first opened in 1987. It’s always been a “sanctuary” for live-music lovers, says Goodman and, ahead of a week that promises to be politically charged, he says it will also be a place where people can (hopefully) leave those politics at the door.

“The Wanch is as apolitical a place as you can find in Hong Kong. It’s a place where people are brought together by music and nothing else. It’s the common love and the festival, as it’s evolved, is a celebration of that.”

Goodman first wandered into The Wanch back in the mid-1990s, and in the coming decades he would leave Hong Kong, return and play at the venue with The Sleeves, then begin helping to run the place with two partners in 2010.

Phnom Penh country punk band Tango and Snatch
“Even then [in the 1990s] I thought it was a bit of a sanctuary,” he says. “Lan Kwai Fong was very much all the rage at that time, and The Wanch was this sanctuary for live music. There was a band called The Bastards I particularly liked going to see – playing a mixture of originals and rock covers. I used to be the drunk guy in the corner heckling and just enjoying the band.”

The H2 festival was initially launched as the Handover Hallelujah Live Music Festival – the name referred to the handover of ownership of the venue and was later dumped to avoid the confusion which could obviously arise.

The Wanch is a live-music institution in Wan Chai. Photo: Bruce Yan
Despite its longevity even back then, The Wanch had – in Goodman’s words – become a bit stale, with a few regular bands playing long sets on regular nights. “We wanted to re-energise the bar and let people know, ‘We’re here and we’re going to be doing something a little different”,” he says.

“The festival was supposed to be a one-off but we thought if everyone enjoyed it that much, why not do it every year.”

With around 20 bands unable to secure a slot at this year’s festival, The Wanch management are now looking into hosting a monthly night where eight or nine bands get to showcase their sound in 30-minute sets.

“It’s a lot better for everyone than saying ‘Try again next year’,” says Goodman. “That’s just depressing and I’ve had enough of those sort of responses myself over the years. The idea is to give them a chance to come down and have a go. It’ll be a way to get things started for some of them.”

H2 Live Music Festival 2017, June 26-July 2, from 6pm each night, The Wanch, G/F 54 Jaffe Road, Wan Chai, free entry