Venue turns away some fans, organizer sets sights on bi-coastal events.The mission was to create an event featuring Asian-American rock artists that would grow into something big. Little did Asian Rock Fest organizer Eric Hsu expect that he would fail--that this year's inaugural festival could not, in fact, grow into something big because it began as an overwhelming success. Crowds packed Piano's nightclub on New York City's Lower East Side from the first notes of Eyes Like Knives' set at 6:00PM through Serious Weapon's last riff just after midnight. Several times throughout the evening fans were turned away due to the club's music room reaching its capacity. But the festival's early success does not at all mean that Hsu will slow down. Rather, he now hopes to establish successful bi-coastal and international festivals sooner than he originally planned.
Palpable energy flowed through the club all night as nine artists loaded in, performed, tore down and hung out to soak in the vibe. At the bar midway through the evening, Hsu (who also fronts one of the festival's feature acts, Johnny Hi-Fi) revels at the crowded room. "The industry, venues and general public don't think Asians can rock," he explains. "I am not playing music and creating a festival to break stereotypes or to save an entire race. I just hope Asian musicians can use this event to dig ourselves out of the William Hung tragedy," referring to the American Idol "star" whose fame is based on the mockery of his obvious lack of talent.
Hsu is not alone in his determination to shatter traditional stereotypes that haunt Asian performers in the music industry. There is not only room for, but also a need to change rock artists' collective complexion. Several ARF performers agree that the recent popularity of Hung has hampered rather than helped change mainstream America's attitudes toward Asian-Americans. "[Hung is] complicit in his exploitation but it is exploitation nonetheless, with undeniable racist undertones," explains Kite Operations' singer/guitarist Joseph Kim. Washington, DC performer Carol Bui agrees that Asians are categorized when it comes to personalities and their perceived role in society. "We're not all 'ricers' or whatever expectations people have for us." Making his own viewpoint crystal clear, Hsu sums up his take simply: "Fuck William Hung."
All claims and fairness aside, the only way for these artists to gain mass appeal is to earn it onstage--no one disputes this, they just want the opportunity. As a female, Bui plays pulls double duty in asserting herself as a legitimate performer. "Rock is not just for lanky white boys anymore." And although the music industry is not an exclusive club, memberships are not exactly free for the taking. Kim notes, "Except for the indie rock band Seam, there has never been a successful or mostly Asian rock band in America...and in the mainstream pop consciousness, even [Seam] was but a blip on the radar."
Gaining notoriety is not as easy as booking this type of show to showcase to the world the hidden gems that are Asian rockers. In fact, Hsu received no initial response from venues while trying to book the festival. They believe ARF finally found a home at Piano's only after coordinating with the venue's booking agent, Jasper Coolidge, who is also Asian but admits he booked ARF not out of a cultural nepotism but because he saw the promise of its success. [Editor's Note: Given that other area venues had nowhere near the crowd Piano's had that night (for six entire hours, no less), future bookings for ARF should not present a problem.]
After securing a venue, garnering coverage in The Village Voice, The New Yorker magazine, setting up coverage from internet TV network ImaginAsian, the anticipated performances were the only missing ingredient. Eyes Like Knives, Carol Bui and Kite Operations opened the night with solid, early sets that set an impressive standard for the night. Before taking the stage, Strangeway singer/guitarist Walter Tolentino prefaced their appearance by saying that being Asian in the music industry "...doesn't mean much. Other than Asians may support you [but] you still have to work your ass off." Along with bassist Mike Mizia (adorned in Mike Reno throwback sweatbands) Strangeway displayed the fruits of their practice room labor. At set's end the audience rewarded them with one of the more raucous ovations of the night.
Fellow Asian rocker and underground socialite/guest emcee Maggie Kim then brought on New York City's own Infirm Glory of the Positive Hour. Their wall-of-sound U2-like intro bled into a set of aggressive songs that kept up the crowd's intensity. Johnny Hi-Fi quelled the room a bit with several change-of-pace slower-tempo love songs but eventually reached a fevered pitch, exploding into the second half of their last song, "Lovesong on the Radio," leaving the crowd once again in a frenzy. Serious Weapon brought the night to a close with their own driving, erratic style. With quirky lead vocals reminiscent of PUSA's Chris Ballew, Secret Weapon went heavy on instrumental breaks, emphasizing the "Rock" in the festival's moniker.
Plans are already underway to make future ARFs more successful than the first. The 2005 edition will be bi-coastal with a Los Angeles show planned in addition to the New York date. In 2006, look for a headliner to come to the States from East Asia. The festival's website (www.AsianRockFest.com) will post all new information as details develop. There is a national phenomenon in the making amidst the masses of burgeoning underground Asian rock acts. The band, fans and media involved all know it. What remains to be seen is which artist will be the one who hits first. Those in the ARF camp are confident they will be there when it happens.