2021 Best Shows

Too many gigs, too little time…

My days of going out on the weekend are numbered. Simple truth. Between trying to keep my body in one piece, raise a newborn daughter, and find a more profitable, less physically exhausting hobby – I give myself another year max. And in typical passive-aggressive fashion, I’ve vowed to get in as many shows as possible till that day arrives. Do I dare count the number of shows I’ve been to this year? All I know is I’m ending the year with the back pain of a 60-year old man, a busted camera, and mountains of student debt. But damn, those were some kick-ass gigs. 

Here are some of the best gigs of the year.

2021 Post-Shanghai 摇 (Yuyintang Park 2021.01.30)

My ears have been finding their way into post-rock more and more this year – partially due to my need to block out the dissonance in my life and partially because of how much richer the scene is these days, twisting itself in new directions, subverting everything we thought we knew about the genre. The Post-Shanghai showcase back in January was a hell of an intro to Shanghai’s robust post rock scene, particularly in An Corporation’s baroque and inspired take on instrumental music and in the refined emotional gravitas of Appendix – I still will listen to their live set on bilibili time to time. 

Hades Temple Fair 冥府庙会 (9 Club 酒球会 2021.02.16)

PublicNoise, who took some of the seasonal rituals of Chinese New Year – mainly those of temple fairs and currying favor with the deities – and twisted it in on itself, turned 9 Club in Hangzhou into a netherworld fair to pay tribute to Hades. Complete with fortune tellers, NPC costumed characters, ghoulish shots, and blanketing the entire venue in a blanket of darkness, spirits roamed the space looking for guidance every which way – but mainly through the psychedelic treats that manifested on stage. It was also the first time I became truly enthralled by the psych wave riders Khunathi, who have proven themselves again and again to one of Shanghai’s most kickass bands. 

Frankfurt Helmet 法兰克福头盔 (Modernsky Lab 2021.03.06)

Didn’t take long but cool-hued IDM architects Frankfurt Helmet, who relocated to Shanghai from Wuhan last year, have become one of the electronic’s scenes most exciting acts. While their music is grand on its own – stirring and ambient-filled at moments, kinetic and glitched out the next – it’s the duo’s welcoming of visual artists to enter their world that has made them stand out from the rest. No place was this better demonstrated than last March where I sat in awe as visual artist 膨胀螺丝, who utilized some sort of facial recognition/motion sensor app on his phone to manipulate the awe-inspiring images on the screen – from facemask troops overtaking an urban center to a face-melting mashup of emojis and faces. A perfect marriage of music and visuals.

Canton Power 唔係玩玩 (Mao Livehouse 上海 2021.3.20) 

Face me on stages ain’t exactly a new concept – they’ve been floating around in one conception or another for years now. But when done right – with the right bands, the right crowds, and the right presentation – it’s the best. I think a lot of what goes into the alchemy of a successful face-off is the banter and comradery of who’s performing. And A.J of Haze Sounds knew exactly who to tap – with Hoo! and YouCeHeiLu 右侧合流 from Guangdong going up against Loft Beach and Shanghai Qiutian. Everyone was having a rollicking good time, cheering each other on, mimicking each other’s instrumentation (you never know when you’ll need a cover for a future date) and even teaming up Morphin Power Ranger style for an epic (and most definitely saucy) jam. Sitting on the stage, beer in hand, watching all this unfold – was a treat. 

Zuho x Wonton Bureau 馄饨局 (ALL 2021.03.24)

Hosting events at ALL Club with the Wanton Bureau gang was one of this year’s best experiences – an excuse to bend and twist the concept of club music and give the floor to acts that you’d typically not find within the walls of ALL. However, the moment that will forver be engrained in me is when I snunk out on the day my daughter was born – a forty-minute stopover between my home and the hospital – and hid in the back of ALL, in a state of shock as Zuho performed. One of the most surreal, moving, and dare I say, transcendent moments in my entire life. The music is already soul-crushingly beautiful on its own but tangled up with the emotions at hand and my physical and mental state at the time, it floored me.

Salty Tomorrow 明天的盐 (Yuyintang Park 04.04/09.21)

It was heartening to see how much the Hangzhou band has grown in just over a year. I talked about them plenty last year but seeing them play Yuyintang Park like a fiddle twice (three times if you count their Joy Division Halloween set) was some of the most fun I’ve had dancing. There’s something ecstatic and exuberant about their mix of post punk unease and pensive indie rock. Never too sweet, never too sour – its pop sensibilities only refine and sharpen its off-kilter and momentum-building arrangements – allowing the songs to swell into a whirlpool of catharsis.

Deadly Cradle Death  (44KW 2021.05.20)

Only took three years but I finally got my wish of seeing Deadly Cradle Death in a club. I’m been clamouring for the Beijing duo to keep the club treatment for three years now and seeing them pop up on bills in places like Zhaodai in Beijing over the last year gave me hope my day was near. And glorious it was. The claustrophobic crowd was a marriage made in dream fever hell, and with 44KW’s robust sound system – it was pure manic energy spilling over everywhere. My friend looking on in fear – shocked that this could ever be considered music – was the cherry on top. 

Dirty Fingers 脏手指 (Bandai Namco万代南梦宫 2021.06.01)

Dirty Fingers giving an unplugged orchestral version of their new LP Planet Dominico Vivavilli – turning Bandai Namco into jazz lounge club – and having a couple of mercenary musicians (including Pz of Railway Suicide Club) fill out the band’s grander sound. With accordion, conga, violin, piano, keyboard decking out the floor and band members jumping around like a game of musical chairs, it was a blast to see how they gave a fresh lease to each of the tracks – twisting and contorting their songs while retaining their core dynamism – and in many ways, capturing the sound on record more accurately than their live electric sets could ever.

Howie Lee x Teom Chen (VAS 2021.06.26)

A multi-faceted performance of boundless musical creativity and technological ingenuity – a feast for both the eyes and ears – the Howie Lee and Teom Chen team up – an aerobatic, full-bodied interactive live performance was unlike anything I’ve witnessed. So much, it was hard at times to keep up with the elaborate layers at play – from the real-time visual puppetry (quite literally in one track) to the Tai Chi battle between the two advisories whose actions were translated into the awe-inducing theremin-like applications. Truly cutting-edge stuff that Elon Musk would fap to. 

Jimmy Jack Farewell (Yuyintang 2021.06.26)

Shanghai paid its respects to the man, the myth, the legend, Jimmy Jack – Round Eye’s boy toy drummer of nine years – earlier this summer, giving Jimmy a send-off to remember. Friends and family were up to the task turning the venue into a madhouse, as bodies were tossed about like rag dolls, crowds bum-rushed the stage, instruments made their way onto the dance floor, and secret guests appearances were aplenty. Saliva was shared way too much, drum kits were coming undone, and tears were definitely shed (if the farewell compilation didn’t get you misty-eyed in the slightest you are truly a sociopath). 

White Ink 白墨水 (NEO Bar 2021.07.02)

Snarky, playful, and scrappy, it was a pleasure to get to know the young emboldened White Ink over the past year as they waited to be allowed back into the United States for university. The band – who sports a twisty alt punk sound that’s recklessly and gleefully packed to the gills with everything from California funk rock to brooding indie rock, are as DIY as they come – passionate about the music they’re making. That passion sometimes spills into spite as was the case at Neo Bar when a table of uninterested college students loudly played their game of die whilst the band performed. In perfect punk fashion, the singer got on their table mid-song singing directly at them, contempt in his eyes yet never missing a beat in the song. It was a perfect capsulation of the band’s earnest yet sharp wit – and the kind of spunk that only comes with adolescence. 

Dizang地藏 Club Experience (ELEVATOR 04.16/C’s 06.19/ALL 07.21)

Ksitigarbha continues to surprise me, being one of the only bands in town who never repeats the same set. Seriously, how many bands can just take their psych prog rock sound and twist it into a trance-inducing club set? Not many. And it’s this shape-shifting nature of the band that allows them to grow and evolve. Watching them stretch out their arms (and sound) in ELEVATOR and ALL was some of the most fun I’ve had in clubs this past year. And watching crowds shake loose around then at C’s Bar, with some even joining in on the fun, was probably the closest I’ll get to a Burning Man Festival. Simply put, these cats put out good vibes. 

Kenja Time, Nouvelle, Naohai 闹海, JieChi 戒尺 (Yuyintang 2021.07.11)

Yuyintang is the heart and soul of the Shanghai music scene – a place I find myself popping into even when I’m not sure what’s happening. It’s friendly, comforting, and feels like home. Too many good nights to recall (or have buried deep in y subconscious) but one chaotic evening I find myself racing across the city, paranoid and guilt-ridden after an ill-fated encounter with another vehicle. Ditching share-bikes, switching up my attire, and taking detours through parks (where I witnessed a cat get ambushed by two blood-hungry dogs) – it had the makings of a nightmare. But then I entered Yuyintang and the weight was lifted. The music was top-notch that night – particularly Naohai and Kenja Time – but it was Yuyintang that was there for me. 

Backspace退格  x Lonely Leary孤独的利里 (2021) 

Two of my favorite Beijing bands – Backspace and Lonely Leary – two bands I’ve been following since day one – had breakthrough years here in China, becoming bands that could not only hold their own on the big stage but could throw the crowd into a frenzy. It’s not only heartening to see such an elated response to their music, but to see the band attack their music with such manic fervor, it’s clear they’re only getting started. Catching Backspace at Modern Sky as they wound up audiences with their playful grooves and Lonely Leary just about everywhere, throwing audiences on a knifes edge with almost sadistic pleasure. They deserve all the accolades this year. 

mindexxx (ELEVATOR 2021.08.08)

I’ve realized that Eating Music is filling that DIY void in my life since I left Beijing (along with my own cassette label Nasty Wizard Recordings I operated with two friends). There’s very much a homegrown quality to their output that never feels beholden to anyone other than their own tastes and eccentricities. One of my favorite releases has been Wuhan-based electronic musician mindexxx’s A Bleary Elapse, which seemed to find that beautiful intersection between classical and electronica with acoustic instruments (such as piano and clarinet) weaving in and out of grainy samples, buoyant blips and engulfing modular synthesizers. And to catch the artist live in ELEVATOR on a Sunday afternoon on a couch with candles dimly lighting the room – bliss! 

Yunjing云镜 (Yuyintang 2021.08.13)

With a sound that evokes everything from 70s psych rock to Seattle-era grunge rock at its most combustible, there’s a primitive almost animalistic charisma to their brand of punk rock that’s loaded with sardonic wit, high-wire energy, and old school rock and roll magnetism…or better yet, reckless abandon with a set that tipped into blind debauchery ending with its frontman collapsed on the floor crawling his way back to civilization. Good work fireballs. 

KAOS at C’s (2021)

It’s been a hoot popping into C’s throughout 2021 for the monthly series – ‘a neon-smear collage of DIY art, thrifty attire, sweaty rock and rock, and regretful tattoo decision-making’. There’s something both endearing and radical about the convergence of Shanghai’s offbeat subcultures, sharing with the people their strange little obsession. No judgement, no gimmicks – and always a hell of a good time with musical lineups full of surprises.  Their birthday was a particular highlight with An Corporation squeezing between sweaty patrons to give a whirlwind performance and Rat King turning the floor into a war zone as my body became a rag doll for the masses to have their way with. KAOS reigns supreme.

Little Wizard 小巫师 (Yuyintang 2021.09.05)

Canvassing from math rock theatrics to psychedelic rock conjuring – Little Wizard seems to relish switching gears every few minutes – often times within a song itself, pulling out the rug from underneath just to reveal a surprising jangle-filled epilogue or a minute long meltdown. An exhilarating kaleidoscope of instrumental rock and roll that left nothing on the floor (except for a broken glass or two) – leaving audiences with a full spread of concise, chiselled and loaded tracks that ignite as soon as they leave the stage. 

Wu Zhuoling 吴卓玲 (Heim 2021.09.10)

I don’t go to clubs too often anymore (fatherhood will do that to a man) but I did go out of my ways a couple times to catch acts I knew I’d enjoy. Case in point – being floored by Chengdu based Wu Zhuoling in Heim, whose cosmic electronica wavers between rich, delicate melodies and multi-layered dance rhythms, whilst combining modular synth sounds with ethereal vocals. So good that a few months later I ran over to SYSTEM to do it all over again. 

8 Hour Rock n Roll Club 八小时摇滚俱乐部 (Happy Potion 2021.09.19)

8 Hour Rock n Roll Club took over Happy Potion – a tiny alcove at the bottom of a massive apartment complex and just hidden enough away from the hustle and bustle of the Main Street – for an unplugged punk fest complete with fist-pumping anthems, debauched sing-a-longs, free-flow craft beer, and yours truly scrambling together a DJ set. Music came courtesy of a ragtag group of musicians from the various punk scenes around the area. Low-key yet boundless in the enthusiasm brought by everyone involved, it was a joyous, surly occasion. The true theme to emerge from the evening was that of finding your ‘home’ away from home – a place cut off from the pressures and soul-crushing routine of city life, as we each try to find that balance between living and surviving. The punk scene and in particular the 8 Hour Rock Fest has become a place of solace for the misfits of society. And a place I’ll be gladly head to again and again. 

JiMaoXin鸡毛信 (LoopyLive 2021.09.20)

It’s not often I go into a gig completely unaware of what I’m about to see. And not for lack of trying – what scant info I could drudge up simply left too much to the imagination. So when I heard the Jimaoxin 鸡毛信 kicking off from below, little did I know I was gonna step into perhaps my favorite live act of the year. Leaning into the cosmic and jazz-heavy end of the psychedelic genre – with an almost irrelevant madcap edge to their formation – JiMaoXin 鸡毛信 are essentially a multi-faceted jam band who got bored of being likely lounge room mercenaries and started honing their skills into something more orchestrated, sonically ambiguous, and indefinitely more fun. Its quirks and instrumental intricacies barely disguise the melodic pop sensibilities that makes one wonder if Jimaoxin could have been a hit Japanese band from the late 70s. Yeah – it was a wavelength that I fell right in line with – and combined with the element of surprise – has rendered their set one of my favorites of the year. 

AIRSFX x Zilu 子路 (2021)

Punk is alive and well in Shanghai – look no further than AIRSFX and Zilu – two bands who embody the anarchic spirit that this city almost seems incapable of anymore. Toeing the line between boozy arousal and pointed aggression, I could watch these two bands self-destruct gloriously on repeat. American flag jumpsuits, glittered blue spandex that leaves little to the imagination – they encapsulate different corners of punk rock, with AIRSFX chasing the dragon of no wave inflected street punk with reckless abandon and a penchant for bodily fluids. Meanwhile, Zilu seems like a descendent of Top Floor Circus, with a sneaking bleeding sentimentality lurking underneath its cockeyed tongue-in-cheek mashup of punk, grunge, and pop balladry. 

Sadkids Club ((Portal 2021.10.10)

The phrase ‘Sad bitch moment’ will forever be with me thanks to my jaunt to Guangzhou over the Golden Week. It’s hard to describe Sadkids Club’s act – endearingly self-deprecating yet strangely affectionate, with some slick lo-fi production lurking underneath the surface. The performance held at Portal, the new distro/art space/studio from some of the faces behind Qiii Snacks Records, EGGs, and Vinyl House Cafe, was akin to a post-breakup confessional KTV breakdown. A sad bitch moment that will live on in eternity. 

Shanghai Qiutian X SLATE (Fortune Theater 2021.11.28)

Shanghai Qiutian – whose invigorating, sweeping, and playfully affecting math rock arrangements have enraptured fans for years, have had a hell of a year thus far, one that kicked off with the release of their double LP release Home: Revolution. The band, known for their open-hearted melodies and unmatched live performances, stepped it up this year as they invited multi-national contemporary dance troupe SLATE and string quartet Senza Quartet to reinterpret their debut release with a special theater show at Fortune Theater. I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest, but I was game. And as soon as those curtains opened I knew I was in for a treat – invoking both the set-morphing fun of Stop Making Sense, the simplistic aesthetic pleasures of the music video medium, and the interpretative contemporary dance stylings of SLATE the show was both a feast for the eyes and the ears.

COOKIES系列 (SYSTEM 系统 2021.12.9)

In my opinion SYSTEM, the new livehouse/club/art space/theater space – located on Middle Huaihai Road, still has a few tweaks to work out – most revolving around sound. Growing pains. Nevertheless, I love a lot about the venue mainly its commitment to forging new ground and offering a home to some of the scene’s more offbeat characters. Case in point – COOKIES – the new weekday series hosting experimental, improvisational, and then some. It’s everything I love about experimental shows wrapped in a warm blanket of discovery. Besides getting my yearly vaccination of Torturing Nurse (a must for everyone) I was also floored by Dong Yifan – particularly for his masterful performance on the flute and saxophone – and for simultaneously throat singing and playing the flute.  

Yu Ren 与人 (Modernsky Lab 2021.12.17)

Where have you been all my life Yu Ren? A pointed, cunning and delightful comedy rock troupe that’s been around for two decades (good luck finding their music on streaming sites) I was flabbergasted I had never heard of the band – despite their cult status. The crowd was alit with some patrons unable to even handle their giddiness and receiving the scorn of security. A cock-eyed blend of Quyi and campus rock, there’s something subversive about how the band packs so much into their tracks – embodying their roles and attacking each song with mischievous precision. Most of all though, it simply rocks – plastering a shit-eating grin on my face from moment one.

One more round 2022?

– Will

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