The problem of Ho-Hai-Yan music is mainly one of expectations. A free rock festival on a beautiful sandy beach for 80,000 people — or whatever crowd estimates they are giving these days — is basically a great thing. But do not expect Glastonbury or Fuji Rock or whatever your vision of an international festival happens to be. Ho-Hai-Yan has also been derided as a “night market on the beach” or a populist, government-sponsored tourist fair comparable to the Changhua Flower Festival, but that is also going too far.
The Ho-Hai-Yan Gongliao Rock Festival (貢寮國際海洋音樂祭) is a “rock” festival, but it is a mainstream Taiwanese one.
With two stages and around 90 bands playing daily from early afternoon to 10pm, it kicked off its 14th edition on Wednesday and was scheduled to continue until Sunday night, until it was cancelled due to Typhoon Soulik (see below).
What is a mainstream Taiwanese rock festival, this beast that Ho-Hai-Yan has become? When Ho-Hai-Yan was founded in 2000, no such thing existed. The concert was the brainchild of Zhang 43 (張4十三), who headed of one of Taiwan’s first indie music labels, Taiwan Colors Music, and dreamed of establishing an indie beachhead on an island firmly in the grips of Mando-pop. At that time, only one real rock band, Mayday (五月天) — a group that came up through livehouses and music festivals, rather than put together by music industry producers — had achieved star status. Every other “band” was considered “underground.”
In its second year, Ho-Hai-Yan introduced the Indie Music Awards, cash prizes for the best indie bands, as decided by a jury of music industry insiders. Last year, the top prize was NT$200,000, with a second prize of $50,000. The awards have made a difference to some bands, notably Sodagreen (蘇打綠), Tizzy Bac and Matzka, who used Ho-Hai-Yan as a stepping stone to greater success. Most years, the Indie Music Awards — this year, the 10 nominated bands will play all day on Saturday — is a drag of mediocrity, and the gigantic main stage mainly drives home the point that these bands are not big enough for it.
But the good thing, possibly, is that the audience doesn’t seem to care. After all, this is a free festival. There are long rows of food stalls on the beach, selling aboriginal barbecue, squid on a stick and other night market fare. Beer is cheap. Last year three cans sold for NT$100, sometimes premium brands. The weather is usually gorgeous, and in the daytime one can swim, though only in a small, restricted area, with a line of buoys preventing anyone from getting more than chest deep. By sunset, the water is completely roped off.
In recent years, headliners have included pop stars, but this year the performers are all bands. The most famous are Mayday (which played Wednesday) and Sodagreen (closing act), and they will attract pop-star crowds. There are also a smattering of international acts, though none are very well known. And anyway, most of them played already (on Wednesday), though at least one, the Australian rock band The On Fires, will play in Taipei tonight (see below).
After 14 years, Ho-Hai-Yan has succeeded as a festival, though less so for its music. The hardcore music buffs are still waiting for Formoz in three weeks time.
The Ho-Hai-Yan Music Festival has been postponed due to expected effects of Typhoon Soulik, but will be back at Fulong Beach with shows from 2pm to 10pm daily. The New Taipei City Government is expected to announce rescheduled dates next week. Admission is free. From Taipei, take the train to Fulong Station (福隆站) and follow the crowds. Online, check: www.2013hohaiyan.tw
■ The On Fires is a rock band that sprung out of the fervid scene in Melbourne, Australia about a decade ago. When I call them rock, I mean “rock.” There is nothing “post” about them. Their sound makes you think of the big rock sound from the 80s, of bands like The Clash or AC/DC. The core is the girl-boy duo of Marty Xenoff on guitar and vocals and Max, a statuesque redhead who sings and plays dancy parts on a keyboard with a shoulder strap. Sometimes they have a drummer. Two years ago, they discovered the indie rock scene in China, and have been going back ever since, with three appearances to date at Beijing’s Midi Music Festival, two more at the Zebra Festival in Chengdu, plus assorted touring throughout the country. This is their first time ever to Taiwan, and outside of Ho-Hai-Yan, they made it a point to play a local livehouse show, which will happen tonight. “Our soundman knows their manager,” says 88 Balaz guitarist A-Qiang (阿強). “They got in touch with us by Facebook and said they wanted to play a local show, so we set one up.”
The On Fires play with 88 Balaz and BB Bomb tonight at 10pm at Revolver, 1-2, Roosevelt Rd Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市中正區羅斯福路一段1-2號). Admission is NT$350 at the door, including one drink.