Let me make one thing absolutely clear: the average Malaysian music lover hasn’t been feted like this in a long, long time, and we probably have the unlikeliest of heroes to thank for it. The recent launch of “Visit Malaysia Year 2014” by the deeply unpopular ruling coalition, in addition to the designation of 2013 as its preparatory year, single-handedly took the country from its longtime status of international concert pariah to one of South East Asia’s premiere destinations virtually overnight. September alone will feature The Killers, Yuna, Robin Thicke, and Lamb of God (!), while October brings with it the prospect of Mew, Explosions in the Sky, Enter Shikari, Bring Me The Horizon, and also Crossfade. It’s quite a bit to stomach – and I haven’t even started talking about that mouth-watering Urbanscapes weekend in November yet. Elsewhere, the month of August has been no slouch either, as evidenced by the upcoming one-two punch of the Linkin Park and Metallica shows and, of course, the subject of this blogpost – the recently-concluded Good Vibes Festival.
For a country to whom the concept of music festivals is still a relative novelty, the Good Vibes weekend promised to be a blast from the get-go. Organized by Future Sound Asia, the festival publicly stated its aim of bringing the best of international music to the country, and immediately made good upon its promise by announcing The Smashing Pumpkins as its headlining act a few days later. To sweeten the deal, a rap sheet featuring some of the best local talent – including experimental rock maestro Monoloque, folk pop songstress Liyana Fizi, and indie outfit They Will Kill Us All – were also confirmed. And in the off-chance that that wasn’t enough, the one-day festival would also double as a showcase venue for the local food and fashion community, thereby giving birth to a truly holistic homegrown festival.
Pictured: a truly holistic homegrown festival.
As luck would have it though, my black gold industry employers saw it fit to toss me in the middle of the South China Sea towards late July, a bit too close to the festival weekend for my liking. Thankfully, after three long weeks (most of which was spent chewing my nails in trepidation), I managed to make it back to Kuala Lumpur just in time to meet up with my girlfriend – who had sportingly procured us a pair of VIP tickets in my absence – and scoot off with her to the Sepang International Go-Kart Circuit, where the festival was to be held. The full festival line up had also been announced in my absence, and it looked downright tantalizing. Apart from Billy Corgan et al., three other international acts would also make their debut Malaysian performances: Northern Ireland alt rock band Ash, indie giants Modest Mouse, and the Pitchfork-endorsed garage/noise rock specialists Japandroids.
There was one slight problem though –
Pictured: too much awesome jammed into a single frame.
Astute readers will have already noticed that, aside from being downright phenomenal, the festival’s schedule also featured one of the biggest conundrums this side of the chicken vs egg debate: both the Japandroids and Modest Mouse were scheduled to play at the exact same time on the night – and within seventy feet of each other at that. Suffice to say I was absolutely torn. True – I was a lot less familiar with the Washington lo-fi rockers than I was with the Canadian duo (thanks P4k), but Modest Mouse are one of those bands whose reputation speaks for itself and – in the words of one Adrian Hertzberg – “move souls when they play live”. My subsequent attempts to resolve this dilemma on Facebook ended up ripping open a wormhole in Mark Zuckerberg’s basement, as each band drew roughly the same amount of votes from my online friends. I made a mental coin toss in the end, and for better or worse, Japandroids won. This decision would have some interesting consequences later on, as we shall soon see.
Amanda and I arrived in Sepang on the 17th of August at about 5.30 pm, and after a good half-hour of some overexcited camwhoring at the venue entrance (pictured above), gradually made our way into the midst of the go-kart circuit, where several hundred concert-goers were already gathered. The festival’s three stages – unassumingly named “Red”, “Green”, and “Blue” – were already in full swing, as was the Silent Discotek (a visual house section at the far end of the field). From what I could hear, The Impatient Sisters had just finished their set, and preparations were being made for the next act on the Red Stage to come on. It’s worth noting at this point that the three stages were designed so that each would have a different vibe to it; the Green Stage, for instance, played host to local and regional electronic music acts (and was located closest to the venue’s natural alcohol aquifers), whereas the Blue Stage tended to feature acts capable of creating higher octane atmospheres. The massive Red Stage, of course, was the heart of the festival, from which the day’s headlining acts would perform.
And it was there that the two of us headed first, where Liyana Fizi was in the process of gently coaxing the sun away.
For the uninitiated, Kuala Lumpur native Liyana Fizi is a primarily acoustic singer who plays tunes tinged with a mix of folk and bossa. It’s a bit of an over-generalization at this point, but I like to think of her as part of the burgeoning movement of gossamer-tipped, female indie songstresses that the country has shown itself to be so adept at producing in recent times (think the internationally successful Zee Avi and Yuna). However, the slender singer-songwriter actually made her debut in the local music scene as one of the founding members of Malaysian indie-pop band Estrella, before eventually deciding to branch out on her own upon expiry of the band’s contract with Laguna Music. As was the case with the bulk of Estrella’s oeuvre, introspective observations are Fizi’s forte, with her simple yet melodic arrangements acting as the preferred medium for her musings.
Those delicate trappings didn’t stop her from performing an excellent cover of Malaysian hard rock legends XPDC’s “Apa Nak Dikata” (“What Is There To Say”) during her set, though. While the original version of the number has since gained a cult following as the go-to song for biker dudes who have gotten half-thrashed in karaoke bars and probably can’t sing to save themselves on a normal day, I thought that Fizi and her session musicians’ much gentler interpretation was a killer. To wit, there was a chilling beauty about hearing the lines “Jika dah nasib kita jodoh/Gunung tak lari ke mana” (very broadly translated: “If it is our fate, then we will be together/Mountains don’t ever move”) carried by the songstress’ tender and world-weary vocals. Hit single “Jatuh” (“Fall”) came a little while later and eventually rounded off her main set, but by then the crowd – which had doubled in size – had already been partially seized over in anticipation of wildly popular alt rockers Kyoto Protocol, who were due to play next.
Formed in 2008, Kyoto Protocol have been making waves in the Malaysian music scene ever since they won 1st place in the Yamaha Asian Beat 2009 Central Regional Finals. Although they narrowly missed out on the chance to represent Malaysia at the Asian Beat Grand Finals in Japan, the bandmates stuck to their guns and released their debut EP An Album (cheekily pronounced “Anal Bum”) in 2011. The KL outfit consists of mercurial lead vocalist/guitarist Fuad Alhabshi, keyboardist Gael Oliveres, guitarist Hairi Haneefa, drummer Shanjeev Reddy, and livewire bassist Shakeil Bashir.
At this point I think it’s safe to say that out of all the local acts that played at Good Vibes that day, it was Kyoto Protocol that impressed me the most. They plunged headfirst into an event which, up to that point, had found itself lacking in terms of high voltage sounds, and had the crowd eating out of their hands within minutes. When playing live, the entire band has an assured, The Strokes-ish vibe about them, which makes it incredibly easy to warm up to the five piece. Their performance of the hit single “Pussycat” was also something to behold – bassist Shakeil Bashir was a beacon of absolute showmanship here, dovetailing well with the excellent Fuad Alhabshi, who in turn sounded like an Asian version of Alex Kapranos. I admit that I’m a bit behind the times with regards to all this Kyoto Protocol admiration, as the band’s hype train has long since left the building, but after their set ended I decided I loved what they had done so much that I walked straight to the merchandise booth and picked up a copy of An Album. Kudos and mission accomplished, gents.
Fuad Alhabshi in action.
Due to a combination of hunger pangs and bumping into a few familiar faces (including Sheikh Fadzil of Deftones fame), Amanda and I didn’t get back into the festival proper until 8.20 pm, when we observed the tail-end of Ash‘s main set on the Blue Stage. Earlier in the evening, the Northern Irish rockers had ran into trouble about two minutes into their first song with the entire performance area losing power, sending technicians scurrying all over as they attempted to rectify the problem. Once power was restored, vocalist Tim Wheeler flashed a grin at the hundreds-strong crowd and quipped, “We waited seventeen years to come to Malaysia, and we couldn’t even make it past the first two minutes of our first song” to peals of appreciative laughter.
Even despite the electrical issues, I’d bet anything that the Japandroids would have given an arm and a leg to have Ash’s time slot on the Blue Stage. As mentioned earlier, due to some questionable scheduling instincts on the part of the Good Vibes organizers, the Canadian duo were slated to play at the same time that Modest Mouse were due to come on at the bigger (and much more viewer-friendly) Red Stage. Although it was clear that both Brian King and David Prowse had resigned themselves to having to play second fiddle to the American indie rock juggernauts on the night, they held nothing back and played – amidst shouts of “F**k Modest Mouse!” and “Go Canucks!” – an extremely heroic set for the eighty or so people gathered in front of the Blue Stage.
Having read extremely rave reviews about the Japandroids’ live performances (including one from our very own Rudy K), I had extremely high hopes for this one and both King and Prowse didn’t disappoint. They chose to open their night with “Adrenaline Nightshift”, before quickly transitioning into a blistering rendition of “Fire’s Highway”, and by God it was only then that the strength of lines like “Hearts from hell collide!” and “There’s no hell like this!” truly hit me. That being said, it soon became readily apparent that there was a much higher aggregate of fun being held just a few meters away, and the excitement levels among even the staunchest of attendees soon started to plateau out. The Canadians’ night was summed up during one particularly long gap between songs in their set: as the sounds of “Dashboard” wafted over in astonishing clarity, Brian King walked up to the mic and wryly remarked, “The only lowlight of our trip to Malaysia…is having to play at the same time as Modest Mouse”. Meanwhile beside him David Prowse cheerfully mimed playing the Modest Mouse single’s trademark upright bass in time to the beat coming from the Red Stage, and I couldn’t decide if it was the funniest or saddest thing I had seen all night.
Don’t we have anything to live for?
From a neutral’s standpoint, the best received song of the night for Japandroids was none other than “The House That Heaven Built”, to which what was left of the thin crowd bellowed the song’s trademark “oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhs!!!” with all their might, to encouraging shouts of “YEAH!!!” from King. Equally as noteworthy for me – and I will need someone else to reconfirm this for me because it was so unexpected when it occurred – was the fact that King seemed to bust out the opening riff to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” partway through “For The Love of Ivy”; it would appear that even the Canadians had gotten wind of the thrash metal giants’ impending visit to the country.
All for the love of ivy.
At set’s end I shook hands with Prowse – who had sportingly clambered off the stage to oblige the fans who were clamoring for photos and autographs (myself included) – and shot off to the Red Stage, where the Modest Mouse performance was entering its final embers. Despite being over an hour late, Amanda and I still managed to catch snippets of “Float On”, “Custom Concern”, and set closer “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”, with the latter in particular being particularly memorable, as the entire stage ensemble turned a brief three-and-a-half minute number into a barnstorming jam that variously pulsed and reverberated like a living being.
Modest Mouse performing “Float On” (take my word for it).
Modest Mouse and their touring members left the stage at 10.30 pm to raucous applause, and instead of milling about or carefully dispersing as is usually the case, the audience immediately swelled forward as one and began jostling for position. On both sides of the stage, the LED projectors flashed the words “Up Next: THE SMASHING PUMPKINS“. It was a bit misleading to say the least, as the American outfit needed close to 45 minutes to get properly set up, but Corgan & co. eventually sauntered onstage to thunderous applause.
Welcome to Planet Pumpkin.
I said earlier in the year that it often feels like the people of Malaysia live with their collective heads stuck in the 90s, and the atmosphere at the Sepang Go-Kart International Circuit that evening was just the latest argument in my longstanding thesis. The moment the opening bars of “Tonight, Tonight” came on, you could almost sense the audience rippling as it was singularly transported a decade and a half back in time. Even Corgan himself seemed somewhat enchanted by the response; this air of mutual appreciation would remain with us throughout the rest of the night. Elsewhere, I thought that the much-derided current Pumpkins line-up was also pretty fantastic: new drummer Mike Byrne proved himself a more than able replacement for Jimmy Chamberlin, while both Fiorentino and Schroeder were interesting to observe on more multivarious songs like “Space Oddity” (which completely threw off the throng of gathered Malaysians – dude isn’t so big over here) and Oceania‘s severely underrated “Quasar”.
See some Schroeder shredding.
As part of the Shamrocks & Shenanigans World Tour – at least in the most technical sense – the Pumpkins’ setlist on the night featured a solid number of cuts from their latest album. I personally enjoyed all three selections – “Pale Horse” and “One Diamond, One Heart” rounded up the Oceania triumvirate – but was slightly disappointed by the fact that the songs’ inclusion probably contributed greatly to the absence of any tracks off Gish. The choice to perform “Starz”, which I have always found to be one of Corgan’s weaker tracks, was also a bit of a downer. However, the inclusion of perennial favourites “Ava Adore”, “Zero”, and “Cherub Rock” were more than capable of capitalizing on the hotbed of nostalgia brewing in the crowd; the Siamese Dream cut was particularly well-received, and was practically borne along by the audience’s enthusiastic humming of its main guitar riff.
But the best reception of the night would be reserved for none other than “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”; the moment Corgan intoned the opening lines of, “The world is a vampire/Set to drain-n-n-n”, we Malaysians were off. We matched the Pumpkins vocalist word-for-word and blow-for-blow, to the point that he practically didn’t need to sing any more – we were more than happy to do it for him. I also thought that the song was a perfect encapsulation for what the atmosphere in the crowd did to Billy Corgan’s stylistic identity that night – having realized that this was an audience drunk on his past glories, he gradually adopted the air of an elderly statesman (also gone to seed a bit) and began trying to play up his approval levels as much as possible with the odd flashy rock-star-at-large gesture. Elsewhere, he would carefully direct his three compatriots and draw them into his performance in a manner that suggested a man completely at ease with the legacy that he has wrought himself.
The Pumpkins’ main set ended with a rip-roaring performance of Zeitgeist post-rock anthem “United States”, by which point there was hardly enough time for an encore (it was pushing 1.30 am already). It was thus that despite the loud calls of “SEVENTY-NINE!!!” and “GEEK USA!!!” coming from the audience, the lights came on and the four musicians gave their customary thank-you waves and disappeared towards the stage’s wings to widespread cries of disappointment (setlists later retrieved from the stage and subsequently circulated on Instagram would reveal that “1979” was indeed originally slated to be the night’s one-song encore). Unfortunately, there was nothing left for the thousands-strong crowd to do but retreat to our homes. I won’t lie – a fifteen song setlist did seem like somewhat short shrift for an audience which had waited decades to see the Pumpkins perform in their home country, but given how much of a treat those same fifteen numbers had been, it was difficult to come away with a feeling of anything other than pure satisfaction.
Forgive the all-out cliché here, but today had definitely been the greatest.
Japandroids Kuala Lumpur 2013 Setlist:
Young Hearts Spark Fire
Nights of Wine and Roses
The House That Heaven Built
For The Love of Ivy/Enter Sandman (snippet)
Modest Mouse Kuala Lumpur 2013 Setlist:
Ocean Breathes Salty
Fire It Up
Tiny Cities Made of Ashes
The Smashing Pumpkins Kuala Lumpur 2013 Setlist:
Bullet With Butterfly Wings
One Diamond, One Heart
Stand Inside Your Love
And because I feel like I also have to do my part: