Modern Sky Festival NYC Live Show Review: A East-West Merge

Started in Beijing seven years ago, the Modern Sky Festival is now one of many big music festivals that take place across China put on by its namesake company, Modern Sky Entertainment. On the weekend of October 4th and 5th, Modern Sky took the plunge into the US market, starting in New York City, where you can’t throw a rock on any given day without hitting some kind of festival.

Started in Beijing seven years ago, the Modern Sky Festival is now one of many big music festivals that take place across China put on by its namesake company, Modern Sky Entertainment. On the weekend of October 4th and 5th, Modern Sky took the plunge into the US market, starting in New York City, where you can’t throw a rock on any given day without hitting some kind of festival.Modern Sky Festival 2014The weather, too, wasn’t exactly cooperative. An outdoor concert in a Northern city in October is always going to be a gamble, and had Modern Sky taken place a weekend earlier, it would have basked in unseasonable warmth. Instead, less fortunately, the barometer ended up taking its first real dip into fall teh weekend of the festival, and a long Saturday morning rainstorm left puddles across Rumsey Playfield — some of which were still lingering after everything wrapped up on Sunday evening.

Modern Sky Festival

Deserts Chang / Zhang Xuan & Re-TROS

Seeming mostly unfazed, the audience gathered among those puddles to watch openers singer-songwriter Deserts Zhang Xuan and the Beijing post punk trio Rebuilding the Rights of Statues (aka Re-TROS), who have toured through the US a few times since their first SXSW appearance in 2007. As with the other Chinese artists that the organizers brought in for the occasion, their profiles back home outweigh their notoriety in the US, and hopefully the further exposure will bring both Deserts Chang (aka Zhang Xuan) and Re-TROS some deserved attention here.

In addition to its lineup, Modern Sky set itself apart from other festivals with a predilection for punctuality. This otherwise amiable trait would come to cause some discontent on Sunday when the plug was pulled too early on Cat Power’s set, but otherwise, the audience benefited from short intermissions aided by the quick moving crew that swarmed into action immediately after every set. So it was that at pretty much 7:30pm sharp the perhaps second-most unlikely performance of the weekend (see the first-most below), the reunited Blood Brothers, took the stage.



The Blood Brothers

Appearances at FYF, Fun Fun Fun, and a hometown stop at the Showbox at the Market in Seattle, had been announced earlier in the year for The Blood Brothers, making a New York City trip seem inevitable. All the same, it couldn’t have been the most expected reunion of 2014, given the intermission of seven years since they last performed. Eviscerating post-hardcore like theirs also can’t exactly get easier to play with age, which made the ferocity of their fan-favorite set doubly impressive. Not only did co-singer Johnny Whitney break out his classic baseball T-shirt for the occasion, but The Blood Brothers had clearly practiced the hell out of “Cecilia and the Silhouette Saloon”, “Love Rhymes with Hideous Car Wreck”, “Ambulance vs. Ambulance”, et al.



Performing half the time in an odd, colorful woven mask with only two small eyeholes (recalling the cover art of their latest, possibly greatest, album, Mess), frontman Angus Andrew’s offbeat charisma led Liars through their 8:15pm slot. Liars aren’t afraid to shake a hip at their own artistic seriousness, and the Mess-heavy half-hour (or closer to forty minutes, probably) made a fitting transition into the night’s final show, Atomic Bomb! The Music of William Onyeabor.


Atomic Bomb! The Music of William Onyeabor

William Onyeabor, the Nigerian funk artist who cut a number of records in the ‘70s and ‘80s, was thrust into legendary status over the past year with the separate appearances of an anthology, a documentary, and this name-packed live tribute to his ebullient, hypnotic grooves. Having played Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Los Angeles earlier this year, Atomic Bomb! is enthusiastically led by Ahmed Gallab, better known as Sinkane. Mainstays of the revolving group like Money Mark and Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip were there to move the crowd to dance off the encroaching evening chill, along with new guests like singer Jamie Lidell, and Peaking Lights on backing vocals. Unbelievably, Pharoah Sanders, a man more than worthy of his own documentary, stepped up for a surprise, epic saxophone solo during the third song, and then continued to hang around and bring the vibes.


By Sunday, it was clear that Eastern/Western diversity was definitely the festival’s strong suit and most original selling point. Both days, though, were front-loaded with very well-established Chinese bands, when it might have been beneficial to give some of them later slots. Though many of the Western artists had been around a while as well, it would have been a nice way for Modern Sky to give groups like Shuh Tou, Omnipotent Youth Society, and Second Hand Rose their due, especially considering how far they traveled to be there. Much of the audience was clearly there for Shuh Tou and — especially — Second Hand Rose; with the way the crowd thinned out after their back-to-back sets, it might have made sense to put them on second-to-last, if not even as headliners.


Shuh Tou

Less damp than Saturday, Sunday’s weather still wasn’t ideal, with a fall breeze winding around Central Park as we arrived just in time to see Shuh Tou. The folks who were there were quite excited to see the Chinese rock band, who has been playing since the mid-’90s. We caught most of their set, and their status as one of mainland China’s first and greatest rock bands rang very true. Having just reunited after a more than a decade of hiatus, it is understandable that fans were ecstatic to see them.


Second Hand Rose

The legendary Chinese band Second Hand Rose drew great cheers from the crowd before playing their first note, and rightly so: their outfits were by far the best of the day. Singer/guitarist Liang Long’s pastel paisley suit with golden chain epaulettes made a fitting ensemble for a ringleader, and guitarist Yao Lan’s red tutu matched up nicely with the rest of the band’s outfits. The crowd roared after each song, and Liang kept them laughing in between, though unfortunately for us, we didn’t understand what he was saying. All the same, the fervor of appreciation that rippled through Central Park didn’t need translating. The one song we recognized was a well-executed cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” (or perhaps a cover of Alien Ant Farm’s cover?). Seeing Second Hand Rose was an exhilarating experience, and the good news is that they’re playing NY again on October 19th at Webster Hall. The band represents a nice cross-section of modern Chinese music; blending both traditional instruments and more modern rock stylings, they appeal to a wide spectrum of fans.


The Both (Aimee Mann & Ted Leo)

The Both came on to an encroaching evening chill and an audience reduced in the wake of Second Hand Rose’s departure. Using this to our advantage, we got closer to the stage for a great view of the duo of Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. Having seen them earlier this year at the Bell House, a small venue in Gowanus, Brooklyn, the large stage in Central Park seemed to overwhelm them a bit. They stood quite apart, so it wasn’t ideal for the funny — and sometimes dirty, — stage banter that has become integral to their act. Their excellent dynamic came through, though, and the set was fun but quick. Leo seemed a bit perturbed that they got rushed off the stage, which was a double-edged sword for the crowd; while we appreciated the swiftness of the in-between breaks, the time saved wasn’t parlayed into longer sets. The duo (backed recently by drummer Matt Mayhall) managed to get a good amount of songs in from their self-titled debut, and I found it pleasing that their songs retain a bit of what is unique about each of them as musicians. Their quirkiness, their intelligence, and their talent makes them an excellent as a pair.



Perpetual Juno Award and/or Polaris Prize nominees, Stars, came onto the stage with so much energy that I was warmed up just from their presence. From their start in 2001 in Montreal, Stars have crafted a local presence that has grew larger over the years. Fast-forward to 2014, and they are on their 7th album, with a global audience, so their penultimate slot here made sense. Reinvigorating a tiring audience with songs from across their discography, lead singer Torquil Cambell & Co. started off the set with “From the Night,” and kept up the passion through the end alongside second vocalist Amy Millan, finishing with “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It.” Their upbeat set, which was punctuated by fan favorite “Elevator Love Letter” (from their 2003 album, Heart) was a highlight of the evening.


Cat Power

Long known for her erratic live sets, Chan Marshall seemed cool and collected on Sunday night as Cat Power wrapped up the evening with a cut-short set that did manage to squeeze in “Cherokee” and apropos standout, “Manhattan.” Marshall was anchored by a solid backing band, who brought out the lush rock n’ roll textures of her most recent album, Sun.


We left cold but satisfied, hoping that next year’s Modern Sky will be slightly warmer and perhaps a bit more evenly balanced between the Chinese and the American acts. There are always kinks to be worked out with any first time for a festival, as smooth as things may run back home. Speed bumps were inevitable, but Modern Sky’s adventure in Central Park bore enough promise to warrant a return.


Modern Sky Festival

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