It’s not like other festivals this. Plonked unpromisingly on a vast dusty wasteland at the end of the runway at Shanghai's Pudong Airport, Midi’s nine flimsy stages are scattered around areas of landfill and swampland, making interstage navigation in the black of night something of a danger lottery - especially as it gets dark at about 6pm round these parts. Its dates are also unlike any in the west. Starting on the Wednesday of the Chinese National Day holiday week, it ran three full days though to Friday.
Then there’s the bill. The international acts are either weather beaten old-stagers or little known up-and-comers with adventurous management, while the local bands are something of an unknown quantity to western ears. But all of that hardly matters a jot, because Midi is one of the most utterly thrilling festivals you could ever wish to find yourself at.
In part this is down to the creative booking policy. Big(ish) name western acts like Fear Factory and Wayne Static nestle alongside local heroes like girl-fronted alt rockers Subs and long standing nu-metallers Miserable Faith, but it’s the smaller stages where much of the best fun is to be found. One 20 minute hike across the site saw us witness a circle pit of near biblical proportions for local Trivium-alikes Mega Souls, some cymbal-clanging face-painted Chinese opera, a bunch of nine-year-olds belting out turbopunk covers of popular kids songs and a strangely misplaced African drum trio parading across the site and getting the hips swaying. But despite all this welcome and unexpected variety, Midi is still all about the rock - and boy does it rock.
The food, as you’d expect, was just something else. Arranged into a long, tent covered street, the eats were a thing of beauty. Donkey burgers (100% real donkey, mind), steamed prawn buns, grilled squid by their thousand, crispy tentacles poking out of paper bags everywhere you looked. Each new stall put a festival slant on traditional local foods and dusted it liberally with MSG (that’s monosodium glutamate, not the Michael Schenker Group) and rock’n’roll. The smells were absolutely mouth-watering, even if some of the dishes were utterly terrifying to a more sedate Western palate.
And what of the music? Of the names you will know, Wayne Static of Static X (as he is now legally obliged to call himself) powered out a leaden run through of Wisconsin Death Trip in its entirety, while Fear Factory chugged out the riffs in that same workmanlike but unspectacular way they’ve always done, Burton C Bell shrugging around the big stage like a grumpy Kiefer Sutherland. Swedish symphonic rockers Therion came over a little more Butlins than Glyndebourne, while Russian pagan metallers Arkona blew the cobwebs off a blustery Thursday morning crowd with their fur-lined thunder. But it was the Chinese acts that really set the local crowds to maximum excitement levels.
Tomahawk’s techie power metal melted the faces of the teenies down the front, while senior punkers Brain Failure pedalled their Rancid-flavoured skank punk to a slightly older crowd of face masked fans. Slow metallists Shamen evoked a Mexican bangwave of monumental proportions, while hardcore deathcore boys Four Five had them hanging off the sides of the stage and exploding from some of the most brutal walls of death you ever did see. But one of our best moments came from a tiny stage in far off corner of the site as local kids Logic Lab proffered a staggeringly original mash up of muscular metal, techno power and traditional Chinese folk voices to an absolutely bonkers crowd of around a hundred flailing kids. They really did deserve a bigger stage, and hopefully by the next Midi they’ll get a well-earned promotion up the echelons.
Of course, the punters were mad for it. The moshpits for mid-afternoon bands on middle-sized stages reached well back beyond the mixing desks, the front few rows awash with the furious windmilling hair of the otherwise innocent looking teenaged girls. And then there were the flags. The big, black and red flags on sturdy poles, battle scarred by the flares and fireworks that frequently crack to life in the middle of the frothing sea of madness. None of your flimsy Glastonbury business here, oh no. The general yardstick is that the more flags you see, the more insane the crowd behind them are likely to be, and you end up chasing the fire and flutterings for ever more extreme thrills and spills. It’s a health and safety nightmare to be sure, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun if it wasn’t.
The Chinese rock scene is a massive, self-contained entity with its own huge stars and incredible audiences. So surely it won’t be long before its biggest heroes start creeping their way out West. But before that happens, it’s certainly worth the effort dragging your bones out to China for a preview, because you will never witness bands, or fans, as fervent and manic and downright exciting as this anywhere else on the globe.
All images: Catherine McCarthy