Fab rock gig let down by poor attendances
By Imogen Neale
Walking up the neatly clipped path, my Filipino companion fixed his little boy eyes on me. As brightly beady as they were it was hard for him to hide his growing apprehension. 'Ahh-mm' he coughed, once, twice; 'ah, where are all the people, the crowds, the fans? You know; the people?' With my toasty, and thus completely inappropriate jacket slung over my right arm (which had grown by three inches during the day as press kit upon press kit had been thrust into its ever shrinking hold) I quipped, 'we're in Singapore, they're probably in a mall somewhere nearby watching it live on a screen.' His left knee buckled slightly, 'a mall? Surely...'
The quip was a little cruel. Here was this Filipino arts and IT print journalist who hungered to see something other than the retrospective rock'n'cheesy roll his national music industries perpetually wheel out (literally), who had almost been skipping in his seat on the way to this concert at the very idea he may soon be in amongst a jumping crowd and who was so excited about seeing Bamboo, a talented Filipino band, finally given a great PA system to perform on, he'd started anxiously flipping his media pass this way and that. I'd just gone and told him people would rather be at the mall where the air conditioning was; shopping, eating and, when the conversation reached a quiet impasse, watching, vaguely, some abstract gig on some abstract screen. As I said, the quip was a little cruel.
Not that that stopped the two Australians, one a Senior Deputy Editor, one an Art Editor cum Cultural Policy advisor, from joining in on the joke. 'Yeah' the Deputy Editor spluttered, 'well, at least there they'd be able to buy a beer.'
Yes, that's right ladies and gentlemen, we were at a rock concert that did not sell, or allow, alcohol. Also, unlike a dance party where everyone can get by sans alcohol quite happily courtesy of a barbiturate or two, this was Singapore; no drugs any where on any one at any time, money back guarantee. Kindly though, they had supplied free water and you could go and get a piping hot pizza made for you from a tent right next to the stage.
The three-day musical event was called Rock D'Fort and it was part of the 2006 Singapore Arts Festival's Outreach Programme (a branch that delivers free and interactive events to the general, and often not arts-friendly, crowds). Over three nights (16th-18th June) the event presented both local and regional artists from a range of musical cannons; rock, electro-pop, post-punk, pop, reggae, and my favorite, rockabilly, on a huge stage at the new base of Fort Canning Hill (the previous 'base' having recently sacrificed itself to the new National Museum extension).
For all extents and purposes the event was superfly slick; those involved had managed to secure and deliver (New Zealander event organizers take note); a huge stage, a sound system that would do the Stones proud, a spectacular setting complete with spectacular lighting and musicians from a number of spaces and places; indie rock from the Philippines, rockabilly from Korea, post-punk electro rock from China and both indie rock and indie pop from Singapore. In addition to this, the weather was singlet and skirt warm, the event was in the central city, transport was easy (and cheap) and the ground was both dry and clean. We (that is an 'anywhere else in the world 'we') should be so lucky.
On the night, even with all these boxes ticked, however, D'Fort just didn't fly. Well no, that's not fair; the musicians, the sound, the setting and the venue – that was all brilliant. It's just that there was no one there to witness it in all its being brilliant-ness. Which is a low down dirty shame because whoever was given the job of selecting bands and putting them in some eclectic, yet complimentary order, did a grand job.
Indeed, as we walked in, the Filipino journalist still a touch sore with us, a peel of reggae slash dub beats started to bump up against us; prompting the Australian artist slash policy advisor to turn and comment, 'probably not the first thing one expects to hear in Singapore at a rock gig.'
Walking in at the tail end of that gig, we were soon greeted by a Korean five piece who could have stepped directly off the set of Grease. Slicked-up hair, little deviant dolly dresses, black and white bowler shoes, soft cigarette packets in their back pockets – their outfit was an aesthetic assault of post- meets neo- meets satirical slash historical, role playing Americana. Of the five - four guys and one girl – the one who had my eye the instant they walked out from behind the (think whiteout excessive) dry ice haze was Velvet Geena; vocalist and guitarist. Bleached white hair, belt-short tartan and chain skirt, tall cowboy boots with multicolor attitude, a shiny guitar and a fondness for the words 'rock' and 'Buddy Holly!'– Velvet is a Korean Gwen Steffani (minus the whole 'take a culture and satirize it so we can make money' thing).
Their music straddles seemingly antithetical genres; pop, rock, country, Elvis, elctronica, metal, and, obviously (given the hairdo's, the clothes, the Buddy Holly tag lines) rockabilly. This monster mash means that Rock Tiger have effectively created their own sound; psychobilly they like to call it.
Influenced by the American group Horror Pops and the German group Mad Sin, the Rock Tiger's know they're a little different – and that's not just feel good hype speaking – they only know of one or two other international bands who rock out like they do. Neither are based in Korea.
Standing square with the stage, I could (for almost first time in my gigging life) see everything; every twirl, slide, spin of the bass, tartan ended flick – everything. To a fan (having liked them very much for about ten minutes at this stage) such band-fan intimacy is heaven – they were close enough to touch (almost, I tried). On the other hand, being so close can backfire; some people, musical geniuses or not, should do as little right in the face of their fans or cameras as record label possible. Velvet of course, doesn't need to worry about a thing; the closer you get to her, the happier you become.
Their set was an eclectic mix; the Buddy Holly chorus had us in peels of laughter, the Elvis tapping our toes, the 'one, two, three' (in Korean) 'rock!' pumping our fists in the air. The sets were tight – lyrically, musically and in terms of team dynamics – it was all homemade cherry pie good. Unfortunately I think the satirical elements embedded in their lyrics and soundscape escaped many of those in the audience. It's not that they didn't like them or didn't think they were any good; it's just that they didn't get them – the words 'who are they again? What would you call this? perched on their lips.
When I was able to talk to Velvet, Tiger and Roy later, they said that although they had felt a little strange performing to an almost non-existent crowd, they believed that getting up on stage and rocking out was what was most important. For, if you do a great job and get the Rock Tiger word going this year, then next year, hopefully, an audience will appear.
The next night, having found the whole thing so amusing and surprisingly good the night before, we were meet by a crowd three times the size of that which had stood (literally) before Rock Tiger. Why? How could these guys be any cooler than Korean rockers doing a contemporary take on Elvis?
Because they were Bamboo; the Filipino indie rock band who, based on aesthetics, could easily pass for a handpicked boy band (so chiseled and brooding is their look). Named MTVAsia's Philippines Best New Artistes and Songs in 2004, its lead singer Bamboo Manaiac and bassist Nathan started the band after leaving another popular Filipino band, Rivermaya.
Their tracks include cheekily poached one-liners and beat arcs that grab your attention partly because they suddenly seem familiar and partly because you think "they aren't going to sing that song are they? That's completely out of keeping..." One of their signature tunes, 'Hallelujah', carries a very sociopolitical Rage Against the Machine message. Although, the lyrics are in Filipino and I'm going on what the Filipino print journalist said.
Their sound is rock clean; think Coldplay or Artic Monkeys. Needless to say then, they pleasantly surprised me – so much so I went out and brought the CD the next day. Also, unlike a lot of rock bands Bamboo, the lead singer, dances. Not only that, he dances very very well – all over the stage, all the time (the Filipino journalist said that the Filipino media bemoan the fact that he never stands still; it means they can't get a decent, crystal clear photo of him).
Due to the little gold tickets we had hanging around our necks we were able to make our way backstage to meet the guys as they came off stage. We stood back, thinking they would want sometime to recover, to get a drink, catch their breath... Not so, as they walked down Bamboo recognized my Filipino friend and gave his hand a hearty shake. They had a quick chat as Bamboo threw a bottle of ice cold water down over his vocal chords and seconds later I was being introduced to the entire band; Vic, Ira, Bamboo and Nathan. Handshakes aplenty, I swiftly became a Bamboo fan; their laid back attitude and willingness to talk, like people, a gratifying shock.
Next up were the New Pants, although at first they were 'oh my god what crazy cool electro-rock stars.' White jeans, white muscle tee, white sunglasses that would have done Jackie-O proud, these guys are Devo China-fied. Moving like erratic robots around the stage they were like a Disney ride on acid; fast then slow, loud then quiet, frenetic then metered. Watching them, a rush of 'ultimate coolness!' swept over me. That, combined with the fact that there was hardly anyone there, at this amazing venue with amazing sound on a clear, warm and worry free night made the whole thing very surreal. And it wasn't just me; the other journalists looked utterly bemused and to go back to the initial question, we all wanted to know; 'where were all the people?'
The experience epitomized an impression I had formed of Singapore's official arts and culture agenda; build it all, fill it in and then wait for them (the audiences) to come. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. For those who get to take advantage of what that can mean (smaller audiences, easier parking, less hassles) it's not such a bad thing. However, I imagine most people would give up those things if it meant that such venues had more atmosphere, more life, more rock, or simply, just more people.
It may work, the theatre performances certainly appeared to have be better attended than they had in the past; even the very conceptual existential performance called 'Play On Earth' which saw three theatre companies in three countries simultaneously performing one play, attracted an almost full house. I believe the bands will keep coming, the Singapore ticket is a good one after all; especially as the promoters actually put them up somewhere decent, feed them, water them and then send them out with a little play money. The rest is up to the fans – you asked for it, they built it, now you need to tear yourself away from the aircon, mod cons and malls and see rock and roll as it should be live, loud and lots of bottled water...QLRS Vol. 5 No. 4 Jul 2006