Boston moshers rock the Great Wall
Soon-to-be-famous US bands make a buzz in Beijing for rock-starved and enthusiastic fans.
Damone is a hard-driving rock band weaned in the basements, garages, and attics of working-class Waltham, Mass. With a 16-year-old lead singer and a songwriter who works at his dad's construction company, they are maybe almost famous.
Damone signed a deal with RCA this fall, but until they came to Beijing recently, they had never played outside Boston, except for a gig in Jersey.
Their thin touring experience didn't matter to the audience at the Yan Club here. What mattered was that they were actual rock'n'rollers from the US. Not many accomplished American bands come to China, but when they do, as with Damone, they leave a little buzz in the air.
As one 21-year old Chinese student says, "A lot of us have big CD collections, but it was pretty amazing seeing what a band can do live." Indeed, Damone's lead singer - called "Noelle," and still in high school - started the set by jumping off an amplifier. Throngs began to mosh by the stage, bringing out security guards who told the band to stop. "I think they thought we were trying to start a riot," says Peter Galli, Damone's manager. "Hardly. The band was just pumped up."
Damone is one of a steady new trickle of "baby acts" - the industry term for newly signed bands that don't have a hit, but are considered promising - now coming to Asia. Rock-starved places like China attract baby acts because the cost and expectations are modest, and promotional prospects back in the US are rich. At the same time, the US bands do engage in a bit of cultural exchange with Chinese counterparts.
"[Damone] played Nanjing with a Chinese band called Black Element," says Tyler Oliver, a video producer traveling with Damone. "The Chinese band was really good. But when they heard these guys, it was like 'Wow.... So that's possible.' "
Chinese popular music tends to mimic the Hong Kong and Taiwanese boy and girl bands that flowered after the American Backstreet Boys phenomenon. "Being a Chinese band is like being a Connecticut band," offers Michael Wester, editor of "That's Beijing," an English-language monthly that cosponsored the Beijing show. "You are stuck between the talent in New York and Boston."
Nor can Chinese hard rockers make a living here; most bands typically split about $12 after a show. Most musicians know what is and isn't acceptable to authorities, and censor themselves accordingly.
Still, the art form stubbornly persists. This summer, China approved an outdoor festival at Snow Mountain, near the newly titled Shangri-La County in Sichuan. Dubbed "China's Woodstock," it featured the slightly Dylanesque Cui Jian, who for many years has been China's best-known rock star.
For baby acts from the States, China venues have a prestige element. "It is more interesting to say you rocked the Great Wall of China than to say you rocked Alston, [Mass.], where everyone rocks," says Mr. Wester. Damone played Nanjing and Shanghai as well - all caught on video for a release in February with Damone's first album.
Adam Lewis of Planetary Group in Boston has escorted six acts - rock, funk, and pop - to China in the past year. They all played small clubs that mainly advertise in English, didn't make big blips on the state censorship radar, and were gone in a few days. "There's so much boot-legging that you don't get big acts. But coming to Asia is good exposure," he says. "We haven't had censorship problems, but I choose bands that don't have offensive names or lyrics, and reach a certain level of professionalism."
For Damone, coming to the Middle Kingdom is also a chance to unify and get in fighting shape for the grueling road shows they will do once their album - with heavy metal melodies and teen angst songs like "Frustrated Unnoticed" and "At the Mall" - comes out in February. The band's style is part heavy metal, part pop, part grunge, and their influences are groups like Weezer and Amen, says Dave Pino, the band's songwriter and center of gravity.
Damone was formed after Mr. Pino, formerly of the band Waltham, spent an anguished year getting over a breakup, a period of writer's block, a clash with a major record producer, and 15 months listening to every band he could find in Boston. The band really came together when Pino found Noelle, a shy but smoldering junior at Waltham High who was singing for local teen bands.
"Pino is an amazing guitar player who's got a backlog of something like 150 songs," says Carly Carioli of the alternative weekly Boston Phoenix, who traveled East with Damone. "Let's see how they do. Everyone's tired of heavy metal and skateboard music, and people are waiting for what's next."
At the very least, they can say they've rocked the Great Wall.
Backstage after the show, in a tiny overheated dressing room where everyone sits on guitar cases and promoters bump into Chinese musicians and a crazy collocation of expats, the mood is good. "Usually US groups start playing in Europe," says the bass player, known as Vazquez. "We are in China, and we haven't even played California."