Japanese girl band with an attitude Gacharic Spin.

Princess Nokia, Thurston Moore in eclectic line-up at Shanghai Concrete & Grass Music Festival

The names may not be as big as in previous years due to bureaucracy and indecisive artists, but tickets are selling fast and the third edition of the festival promises something for everyone

Jake Newby

Name changes, headliner no-shows and torrential downpours. As it approaches its third year, Shanghai’s Concrete & Grass Music Festival may still be in its infancy, but already it’s had a colourful history within the context of mainland China’s general climate of censorship and uncertainty surrounding live music events.

The OGM (left) and Eaddy of Ho99o9.
Yet organisers Split Works are determined to make the festival take root, and so on the weekend of September 16-17, Concrete & Grass returns to the Shanghai Rugby Football Club with a typically eclectic mix of rock (The Thurston Moore Group, Diiv, Toy), hip hop (Princess Nokia, Ho99o9), electronica (Jai Wolf, Mumdance) and randomness (Japanese idols-with-attitude Gacharic Spin).

It might not be a line-up with as many eye-catching names as previous editions, but it’s a collection of artists that rewards exploration. And in many ways, it’s quite an achievement that the festival is being held at all.

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After Split Works’ Black Rabbit Festival was cancelled in 2012 due to concerns over “the politically sensitive September/October period”, the Shanghai and Beijing-based promoters got back into the festival game in 2015 with Echo Park. Headliners included My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, pop singer Kelis and hip-hop duo Black Star (Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli), though after Bey (previously known as Mos Def) pulled out at the last minute, the festival ended with Kweli taking to the stage alone.

Yasiin Bey (above) pulled out of the festival in 2015. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images/AFP
However, Bey’s somewhat predictable refusal to get on a plane to China paled in comparison to the headaches of last year’s festival. Less than three months before the 2016 edition, Split Works announced another name change after what they termed “a sharp, threatening letter” from music platform Echo App “ordering us to cease and desist using the name for a festival that we’d already launched seven months before.”

Having rushed to get word out about the now-named Concrete & Grass Music Festival and its headliners Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks, The Cribs and Hong Kong’s Edison Chen, the organisers suffered a further setback when two typhoons swept through the region in the preceding days. The effects of the first essentially undid their initial site preparations overnight, while the second brought heavy rain to the festival on Saturday night, curtailing the second stage’s schedule.

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You’d think they were due a break this year, but a slower-than-usual permit approval process combined with indecision from some artists meant that the line-up was only fully released on August 29, a month later than planned.

“I probably say this every year, but this year has been the hardest,” says Split Works managing director Archie Hamilton. “Just when you think it’s going OK, the weirdest things come out and smash you over the head,” he adds, noting that this year’s line-up has lost a number of its bigger acts due to a combination of the Ministry of Culture and last-minute fee changes.

On the plus side, Hamilton says that so far they’ve sold more tickets than last year in presales alone. The line-up will naturally always play a crucial role in its appeal, but at least some of those sales can be attributed to Split Works’ determination to build an atmosphere beyond just the names on the bill.

“Something we’ve believed in from the start is that the best festivals are more than just the music,” says Hamilton. “Internationally now, the most interesting festivals are more like a getaway.”

Black metal rockers Zuriaake.
He concedes that Concrete & Grass is “nowhere near” offering the kind of immersive escapism that visitors find at the likes of Fuji Rock, where trails lead festivalgoers to disco balls in the woods and mountain streams with faces painted on the rocks. But he says that Split Works is striving to offer an alternative in an increasingly saturated mainland China events market, putting a focus on the overall experience – with arty fairs, chill-out areas and band-led mass square dances.

Wang Yan, who until recently worked at Shanghai gig venue Mao Livehouse and has attended the festival for the past two years, says its atmosphere attracts a different kind of crowd. “They support alternative music, the food is great and you can lie on the grass,” she says. “If I could only go to one music festival a year, it’d be Concrete & Grass,” she adds, describing the event idealistically as “something of a haven for individuality and independent youth”.

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Not that the festival is completely immune from the lure of the mainstream. Edison Chen was joined on the bill by J-pop outfit Sekai no Owari last year; this year the pop box is ticked by Japanese act Radwimps, who filled Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena in July. “You have to get bigger or you die as a festival,” says Hamilton. “And once you get to a certain level there’ll always be haters.”

He argues that Concrete & Grass’ level of commercialisation is still relatively low compared to some of their competitors. “We’re not trying to rinse this thing,” he says. “We keep the VIP minimal and we work really hard on keeping prices reasonable – we genuinely want people to have a good time.”

Princess Nokia.
Nevertheless, with numerous music festivals to choose from this autumn, many Shanghai punters will still be looking at the line-up. On this front, the absence of the recognisable names seen at some other Shanghai festivals this autumn and the lack of genre specificity may be divisive. But for music geeks there are rich pickings: Princess Nokia has been gaining traction in recent months with her urgent lyricism; Margaret Glaspy will please fans of the likes of Courtney Barnett and Waxahatchee; Japanese “death jazz” act Soil & “Pimp” Sessions seem made for early afternoon festival slots; and Shandong black metal outfit Zuriaake will provide an entertaining, if somewhat haunting, alternative.

Shanghai-based producer MHP, who has performed at festivals across the country (including last year’s Concrete & Grass), sees the event as offering something different musically, describing it as “relatively cutting edge” compared to other festivals in mainland China.

“It’s closer to an alternative music festival abroad,” he says. “I don’t mean in terms of the size of artists they’re bringing in, but in trying to present novel, interesting acts. Most other festivals here are stuck in the mode of not really thinking about different types of music; Concrete & Grass has definitely set a benchmark in certain aspects for other Chinese festivals.”

Whether that’ll be enough to pull in the crowds that the festival’s organisers desire – and whether the weather will play along – remains to be seen.

Concrete & Grass Music Festival 2017, Sept 16-17, Shanghai Rugby Football Club, Pudong, Shanghai. From 280 yuan (US$43) for one day and 460 yuan (two-day pass)

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Festival organisers hope eclectic line-up fits the bill