What Modern Sky Festival Got Right and Wrong

Liars
Liars
All photos Lindsey Rhoades

Better Than: Festivals that take place in 90 degree weather.

Summer may be over, and with it, festival season proper, but that didn't stop the organizers of Modern Sky from bringing the Beijing-based festival stateside this weekend. Taking over Central Park's Rumsey playfield, the two-day line-up boasted Cat Power, Liars, Stars, the reunited-for-tour Blood Brothers, and an ensemble of esteemed musicians performing renditions of William Onyeabor's recently reissued synth-funk epics. Those were just the headlining acts--sprinkled into the line-up was an array of Chinese artists spanning various genres: Clash-era throwbacks Re-TROS, folksy experimental guitarist Deserts Zhang Xuan, drag-donning psychedelic outfit Second Hand Rose, hardcore rockers Shuh Tou, and surf punks Queen Sea Big Shark, all of whom have large followings at home but have yet to gain much recognition outside of it.

Blood Brothers
Blood Brothers
All photos Lindsey Rhoades

If the purpose of Modern Sky was to expose American audiences to popular Chinese acts, the festival could have benefited from more integration. Instead, it became a study of divisions; Chinese bands were scheduled to play early, with most of the marquee given to American acts. Modern Sky Entertainment has produced festivals all over China for seven years now, so it's not as if they don't know what they're doing--but simply scheduling acts with larger US draws later in the evening unfortunately did a disservice to bands that had to travel much, much further to get here. Truth be told, selling out those acts didn't do much for ticket sales anyway. Rumsey Playfield was half-empty despite heavy afternoon rains giving way to beautifully crisp fall weather, and of the attendees, most were Chinese expats taking advantage of the rare opportunity to see some of the biggest bands from their homeland in the middle of Manhattan. It's also kind of a weird time to celebrate the PRC in light of the Hong Kong protests, but politics didn't seem to be a hot topic in the middle of this particular rock 'n' roll show.

While the lack of cultural overlap in the schedule was disheartening, it was salvaged by the musical melting pot of Atomic Bomb!, who began performing shows at BAM back in May as a way to conjure in a live setting William Onyeabor's unique and outstanding work. The enigmatic Nigerian no longer performs his own work, which he abruptly stopped making in the mid-80s after self-releasing several albums and becoming a born-again Christian. Luaka Bop reissued some of that music in a widely acclaimed compilation last year, and thus Atomic Bomb! exploded, orchestrated by Ahmed Gallab of Sinkane. Saturday's lineup differed slightly from the one that performed at BAM in the spring, but the music was just as faithfully performed and as joyous as ever.

While Gallab was a convincing Onyeabor stand-in, he relinquished most of the vocal duties to special guests, like Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip and Nashville-by-way-of-England crooner Jamie Lidell, whose flirtatious interplay with South African girl group Mahotella Queens was priceless. M-1 from Dead Prez leant a verse to "Better Change Your Mind" while free-jazz pioneer Pharoah Sanders added his glorious tenor sax to many a mix; his solo during "Fantastic Man" was accompanied by a roller-skating duo. For the final number, "When the Going is Smooth & Good," a full chorus clad in black robes with large white letters spelling O-N-Y-E-A-B-O-R took over the front of the stage, their ranks including Diane Birch, Oyinda, Saturnino Celani, Aku and Akwetey of Dragons of Zynth, and Jovanatti, among others. That's to say nothing of the tremendous backing band, made up of West Coast dub purveyors Peaking Lights, Beastie Boys' Money Mark, touring members of Sinkane, and a slew of Nigerian percussionists. The diversity and talent of this ensemble was stirring, proof of the power that good music brings people together. As such, it was a fitting send-off for Saturday night's roster.  

Onyeabor
Onyeabor
All photos Lindsey Rhoades

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Earlier in the evening, Blood Brothers came surprisingly close to the rambunctious, piercing glory of their days as artsy post-hardcore poster boys, the dueling screeches of Jordan Billie and Johnny Whitney still acting as perfectly twisted counterpoints. The boys have aged well, as springy and spritely as if eight years had not passed between their last shows and their announcement several months ago to reunite for a handful of festival appearances.

Liars, stalwarts of the New York dance-punk scene circa 2003, opened with "Be Quiet, Mt. Heart Attack" (from 2006's Drums Not Dead), before launching into a short but caustic set full of material from their latest album, Mess. Characterized by aggressive synths and pounding beats, the Mess songs provided charismatic front man Angus Andrew with every opportunity to ham it up; he first appeared in a mask strung with rainbow-colored ribbons, echoing the aesthetic of the LP artwork. Tearing it off two songs in, he proceeded to leap from the elevated drum platform, twirl, shimmy, and deep-throat his microphone, all while seesawing from his unsettling falsetto and foreboding low register, his vocals the singular element that's tied the band's adventurous palette together over the fifteen years they've been playing together.

Saturday's line-up was certainly the harsher of the two, with Sunday reserved for a snappy new Aimee Mann and Ted Leo project called The Both and the mellow indie pop of Stars. This was to be followed by Cat Power, whose performances are notoriously unpredictable thanks to Chan Marshall's often crippling stage fright; due to Central Park curfews her set was cut to just four songs. Again, no matter how popular or how anticipated the performances of the Chinese bands scheduled to play the bill, they were all relegated to the earlier hours of the fest, their status sadly secondary despite Modern Sky's roots in the same country. It was the first year organizers have attempted to stage the event in the US, so hopefully they'll have learned some lessons should they decide to bring it back next season. For now, it was a fun experiment in bringing cultures together, even if this time around they seemed less yin and yang and more like oil and water.

Overheard: "We have to get selfies with those pandas." - anyone/everyone within three feet of the costumed pandas roaming the audience

Critical Bias: Where to start? Saturday was an absolute culmination of things I loved deeply 10 years ago coming back to remind me of the reasons live music is still such a vital part of my life; around that time I rarely listened to anything besides Liars' seminal witch-burning concept album They Were Wrong So We Drowned, and I saw Blood Brothers play live something like four or five times. I lived in Columbus, Ohio, at the time and the only band I saw more of were Unwound-indebted locals Sweetheart, with none other than my good friend Ahmed Gallab on drums.

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