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April 8, 2010

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The delicate sound of thunder

Don't be fooled by that delicate Chinese instrument on stage. The guqin played by rocker XTX is just one string to his bow. His gigs might start quietly but don't stay that way for long, as Ben-Darrow Goodman finds out.

It's Mao Livehouse Shanghai on a Wednesday night. The first floor holds around 400 people and the room is packed.

The singing crowd are fans of rocker Xie Tianxiao or, as he's better known, XTX. He's been playing in grunge bands since 1994 and is frequently referred to as China's No. 1 rocker.

XTX is virtually unknown to non-Chinese listeners, although the band has appeared at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

"I really liked Austin," he says. "It's very green and South By Southwest was incredible."

That Western influence can be heard in the new sound he's incorporated into his sets - that of Bob Marley and reggae.

"Oh yeah, definitely he's a legend and so famous," says XTX. "He's an inspirational icon. All his songs are great, but I especially likes songs like 'Get Up Stand Up' and 'Jammin'."

Alongside a drum kit, amps, basses and microphones, on stage is something uniquely Chinese.

A roadie is tuning a guqin, a stringed zither that may remind Western audiences of a lap steel guitar.

For centuries, classical Chinese scholars studied the guqin. Now XTX is taking that traditional Chinese art and mixing it with electric guitar and heavy rock.

"I was self taught on the guqin. Foreign audiences, I think they don't understand it, but they like it," he says.

The show is about to start. A group close to the stage are already jumping up and down waiting to hear some of their favorite songs, high-fiving friends.

The lights in the club dim and immediately there is a roar from the crowd and everyone stops what they're doing to watch the stage. The band emerges from a cloud of smoke. XTX is the last to appear.

He starts the show with a small piece on the guqin, playing a collection of delicate notes. But you can feel an intensity in the room: you know things are going to get heavy.

Sure enough, Xie mixes up the show with grungy riffs that sound like they could be from Seattle in the 1990s. But he has intricate and catchy pop/rock singing layered over the heavy guitar.

XTX keeps as calm as a cucumber. While the bassist and the other guitarist, like brothers at his side, are playing to the crowd and doing windmills, XTX is remarkably at peace for most of the show, maintaining an almost hypnotic ease and control. His appearance is understated for a band frontman, wearing a plain white T-shirt and alternating between two Les Paul guitars, one black and one white.

But that's not to say he's not a showman.

In the heavy sections he explodes onstage, howling into the mic and filling the room with intense control and fluidity.

Surprisingly, the guqin and the voice are not at all clouded by the haze of heavy bass, drums and distortion.

They cut through perfectly throughout the show, keeping a balance between heavy and delicate, raw and pretty,reckless and melodic.

The setlist is a mix of grunge, reggae, pop, rock. The melodies, while maybe influenced by the West, have an intensely authentic Chinese character.

The band plays Chinese style melodies and pop with a hard rock breakdown or maybe a reggae jam with fills from the guqin.

This makes for a fun time for the crowd: in one instant there is pushing and borderline headbanging, and the next instant the room is floating along with a reggae sway.

Somehow, despite that large gulf between styles - grunge, guqin and reggae - it all seems to work without appearing to be a kind of gimmick.

The songs are well put together and all the interweaving alternating riffs, volumes, rhythms and melodies flow in and out of each other. By the end of the show XTX was tearing up the stage playing a solo on his white Les Paul, tasteful, not overly flashy.

He was in full Jimi Hendrix mod as smoke filled up the club and the set neared its end.

"I really love Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix," XTX says after the gig.

So what next for the Chinese rocker? "Our future? Next year we're excited about a European tour including Copenhagen."

"He's a real rocker," says club promoter Andy Yan, "He's been around for a while and almost nobody plays Chinese rock like XTX."


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