Concrete and Grass is kind of a unique phenomenon in the music festival scene out here. I’ve made it through to some of Shanghai’s other major festival offerings, and more than once ended the day with a vague sense of emptiness. Big flashing lights, foreign college students throwing up, and a jumble of whichever big-name artists happened to be on hand at the time (why is Far East Movement sharing the stage with that Swedish DJ?). It all adds up to something distinctly artificial.

Concrete and Grass, then, feels like a breath of fresh air. SmartShanghai dubbed the fun-loving, family-friendly event the “festival-by-people-who-actually-go-to-festivals-and-love-music.” Their lineup skews toward the eclectic, featuring everything from rappers to rock bands to cutting edge electronic crossover acts. It all goes down in the post-heatstroke mid-September air of the Shanghai Rugby Football Club.

We arrived at the security barrier. Remember how I said this festival was family-friendly? A hyphenation you would probably not use to describe most music festivals. That meant no booze or cigarettes allowed past security. I’m pretty sure it’s legal to chain smoke in kindergartens here, so that second one was especially surprising. Once we made it past the security barrier totally fine, without 1.5 liters of whisky coke tucked into an inner backpack compartment, we strolled into maybe the most inviting festival scene I’ve come across in China.

Grass sprawled out in every direction. There was basically no concrete, which was kind of off-putting at first, but way more suitable overall. Despite the family-friendly disclaimer, a few stray whiffs of the ganja weed floated by our nostrils. Sure, there were a handful families with little kiddos running around, but the majority of guests were the ultra-hip, edgy alt-culture crowd. Girls in fresh outfits with colorful hair live streamed the event to fans on Zhibo. A not-overbearing amount of foreigners mixed pleasantly and seamlessly with locals (FYI, a bunch of foreigners is sometimes the quickest way to ruin an event). Gymnasts cartwheeled and did handsprings around a goddamn maypole. When I saw the maypole, I was sold.

But enough about pleasant weather, maypoles, and whisky cokes. Let’s talk about what’s really important – the music. We can do this rapid-fire, and touch on some of the Chinese artists who really made their mark.

  1. Howie Lee

Howie Lee is an anomaly. In a recent interview with Radii, he talked to us about passive creativity – I don’t think about creativity, I just copy…I am just a cog in the system…my body and name do not belong to me. His offhand remarks reflect something complex bubbling inside him, and his music does the same. In his live set, Howie demonstrated his musical range: he spun tracks from hardware and his computer, banged out Chinese rhythms on an electric drum kit, and performed heavily effected, near-metal vocal screeches into a microphone, all accompanied by a live drummer. Howie is one of China’s most exciting modern musicians, and you can tell just by looking back at the faces of the crowd, all still trying to come back to grip with reality.

  1. Carsick Cars

Carsick Cars is an indie rock trio from Beijing. Their 2007 self-titled debut album got them international recognition, and led to a European tour with Sonic Youth, as well as three consecutive years of play at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Only one original member remains, but this performance was special, consisting of the three original members playing straight through their first album. You could feel the nostalgia resonating out from the enthusiastic audience. Zhang Shouwang, the only original member still holding a regular place in the band, picked up a drum stick to slap out some experimental electric guitar riffs with his former bandmates. During fan-favorite Zhong Nan Hai, an anthem about the band’s favorite cigarette brand, the crowd threw cigarettes into the air for the entire duration of the song, much to the dismay of family-friendly security staff.

  1. Zuriaake

Sheesh, what can we say about these guys? Zuriaake is crazy. The innovators of Chinese black metal have been active for almost twenty years now. They stood in a straight line side-by-side on the stage, decked out in black robes, shrouds, and rice paddy hats, which should tell you enough about their vibe. They also shredded at maximum shred levels. The fusion of classic metal and Chinese folk elements makes for a really palpable atmosphere, and these guys were probably among the most hardcore, skilled musicians at the festival.

  1. Glamorous Pharmacy

The 90’s were a time of change in Chinese culture. The post-Mao era had finally arrived in earnest, and a series of boundary-pushing art and music began to seep out of the mainland. Glamorous Pharmacy is a product of that time. The band recorded its first demo in 1999, Happy Time. They were praised for a dedication to their unique sound, during a time when other rock bands had all adopted the exploding punk culture. They brought their signature weird, psychedelic sound to the stage at Concrete and Grass, proving that this was a festival without a genre.

  1. White+

White+ is a self-described “hardware electronica duo.” It was formed by Zhang Shouwang (the guy from Carsick Cars who was playing guitar with the drumstick), who recruited acclaimed drummer Wang Xu to complete the sound. Zhang does vocals, keyboards, pedals, and loops, while Wang takes care of drums and ambient soundscapes on a sampler. The result is an ever-morphing, entirely shapeless sound from the frontier of a cyborg playlist. We enjoyed bathing ourselves in White+, and washing away the remains of any previous music we’d heard at the festival.

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There were tons of other acts – too many for us to get into. Badass Nuyorican rapper Princess Nokia was there, bouncing around and killing the game. So were Brooklyn rockers Diiv, as well as producer Jai Wolf, and others. Overall, Concrete and Grass represented a like-minded spirit more than a like-minded sound. Artists from across the musical spectrum and across the world all gathered together, to jam out for fans with an equally diverse set of tastes.

Will we be going back next year? You bet. And you’ll get some coverage of that from us too, if you’re not there yourself.

Photos by Zhao Yinyin for Radii