This hub for up-and-coming musicians from across the globe sets Taiwan up for a more prosperous underground music scene - Gigwise reports on its highlights from the city of Tainan
Cai Trefor
16:53 4th January 2019

Fog hangs over the dancefloor in front of Chendejyu Shrine as DJs blast their finest records. It's the closing party for the festival proper and the crowd flock to the free booze at the bar, or flail around in the flicker of strobe lighting. But this would be any other day unwinding in Taiwan if it wasn’t for the location: the enchanting 17th century Chendejyu Shrine’s not somewhere a party of this ilk – a secretive music showcase festival afterparty – has been held before. And it’s made more memorable thanks to the ritual carried out – seeking permission from deceased General Chen – to be here. Chen’s the general who followed Koxinga of the Ming dynasty to expel the Dutch and to develop Taiwan.

Essentially, the shrine owners asked their ancestor – who’s a cherished figure within Taiwanese Independence movement – by using their crescent shaped “moon blocks”: divination tools that are thrown on the ground in order to be analysed which way they fall for yes or no answers to wishes. If the moon blocks had fallen another way, they might not have had this lavish unusually high spirited gig where the shared feeling is that of respect and visceral celebration as it’s a complete one off. Though I'm told they would just keep throwing the blocks to get the desired answer.

But coercive fortune, strike of luck, it doesn’t matter: having this party somewhere as sacred as the Chendejyu shrine is the send off that LUCfest deserves. This female-led three-day showcase festival and conference, now in its second year since being founded by Weining Hung and Wan Ching, is as noble of an enterprise as they come.

At the heart of this multi-venue city festival, is a desire to better integrate the rich Taiwanese indie scene – and by indie I mean independent in spirit; not in musical style – with the rest of the world's: “I was always taking the bands to Europe so why not host here as well,” says Weining Hung. Hung’s a key champion and cog in the wheel in developing the new wave of Taiwanese emerging talent, partly by providing a platform to those capable of getting traction around the world. Thanks to a rich array of delegates, the festival also functions to better integrate Asian music market as a whole with that of the Western music industry.

One way newcomer festival LUCfest is setting routes to success for bands – wherever they’re from, though it’s significant for Taiwan since it’s not got the gig going culture on the scale of many other countries; and for the quality of music it’s heavily overlooked – is the organisers ensure influential industry professionals are at the gigs. These are gigs that if you're a new band could change your life: top-notch managers, label owners flit about alongside fans. Then comes the workshops: how to pitch, network, demo listening, and more. All good nurture.

In terms of setting, the event couldn't be much better placed than it is here in the city of Tainan. At first there's confusion. Why not Taipiei? What's with the fourth city of a country? But quickly we see why LUCfest is so well suited to here.

Firstly, the city looks the part: the high-rise tower blocks densely assembled, and the haze hanging over the skyline, glowing in 25 degree heat is a welcome sight in December. Taipei at this time of year is drizzly and cool.

Secondly, there's an allure to the street culture. Small businesses are cropping up thanks to more affordable rent prices than the capital. “There does seem to be a lot of people I know from Taipei moving there and starting independent business,” affirms Hung, when quizzed about the youthful tempo of daytime Tainan. “And we're truly seeing the local people, who are interested in music, take interest in LUCfest.”

Quaint alleys and lanes packed with hipster restaurants and shops in the West Central district are captivating. Roadside businesses in this area are interesting, too. In particular, the the vintage clothing shop Chóng dòng, with its open jam sessions on the pavement outside, is worthwhile as it's a great hangout for budding talent.

Yet much of the city looks timeless and undeniably east Asian: the homely aroma of beef bone stock bubbling at noodle carts; the constant buzz of mopeds racing along the dazzling neon sign adorned streets - all brilliant to take in. Moreover, the Garden Night Market’s reliably weird fare is another thing to remind us we're a long shlep from home. And the eye-popping decor in the Taoist and Buddhist temples are a transfixing presence; especially amidst a heady stew of burning incense, and melodic street music that comes in unexpected ways: the spooky polyphonic call of the binmen’s siren a niche touch.

One of the city’s most beautiful sights happens to double up – temporarily – as Gigwise’s showcase venue. Psych band Head Composer, and experimental pop solo artists Elizabete Balcus, and Mart Avi, make up all three of Gigwise’s picks. They play at the Chuan Mei theatre – a popular cinema –over the course of the festival.

In the cinema, genuinely tattered walls inside and hand-painted billboards on the exterior give it a look most arthouse cinemas dream of recreating. As for the guest curator idea, it means loosening the iron fist of artistic control, in favour of being a co-operative exchange of ideas. Meaning, the likes Le Guess Who?, Bella Union and Gigwise have a say in who lands a coveted spot on the line-up. But, for the most part, the line-up is their own doing.

First out of Gigwise picks, is Taipei-based instrumental stoner rock band with the hypnotic feel of Kyuss, mixed with some easter psychedelic folk overtones. Named Head Composer, the often closed eyes and stoic posture of the five-piece band on stage gives space for acid trip inspired visuals – triggered by a live VJ – to become impactful.

As the seamless set grinds to a halt, the music appears to have had a transformative impact on the audience: wild yelps of elation indicative of the audio-induced euphoric sensation shared in the crowd who mostly hadn't seen or heard of this band before.

With the remaining two Gigwise showcases to follow the next day, we switch venues. And the next highs of the day come from shoegaze from Taiwan and from an underground Belarusian post punk/cold-wave duo.

The latter, Super Besse, perform in one of the festival's more modern venues, Seety. But it takes an intriguing walk past florists, shrines, tea houses and whiskey bars to get there. Leaving the rustic ye olde feel of the city to never be more than a moment away. Especially good for a short wonder is the picturesque, old Shennong street; an enchanting, wistful place hideaway from the busy roads. As for Super Besse’s set, they chanel monochrome post punk aesthetic with fun, dorky dance moves to evoke a rabble-roused reaction from the packed room. Their relatively modest social media following despite so many years playing together doesn’t do justice to the power as a live act.

Kaohsiung City-based band Fogbow hold fort in the record shop Lola. Being one of the oldest buildings in Tainan, it's dripping with charisma. At this gig, you can spend time browsing the records, contemplating how much you'd get on Discogs for the limited edition classics; or stand on the mezzanine, looking down at the antique bar. This time it's chocka as there's a full house for the band's grooving shoegaze/dream pop. The loose-hipped rhythms and soaring guitars fit succinctly with the melancholic tone of the falsetto female singer. A great band for people who enjoy their music saturated and intense, yet – somehow – still light and melodic.

The Saturday’s musical highlights mostly are held in Chuan Mei theatre and first up are Gigwise curator picks Elizabete Balcus and Mart Avi. Both are artists we championed having seen scintillating sets at Estonia’s influential Tallinn Music Week.

Making the most of the huge screen, Elizabete Balcus – the Latvian singer and flautist, who built some buzz in the indie press over the last couple of years after a succession of European showcase festival performances and relentless touring – projects artful images of herself, spaceships, animals and myriad psychedelic musings that elevate the transfixing dream pop arrangements.

Despite there being a lone figure on stage, nothing is pre recorded for a full sound: beats are triggered live and live instrumentation – flute and vox and midi - is looped. Veering into chamber pop and breakbeat at times, the set – that will be remembered for its last song ‘Purple and Gold’ that sees her lobbing watermelons and other fruits that were acting as a midi keyboard into a shocked crowd: "Oh my god!" a few yelp, hoping not to get knocked out – is sculpted from debut album Conarium; and connects brilliantly.

Mojo magazine tipped Mart Avi follows swiftly. It’s a set that feels tightly connected to a bizarre artistic vision, and presents fairly personal meditations on things the powerful singer likes and on the state of the world: heroes from his past, including Mohammed Ali, are cast as live visuals to accompany his unique, immensely melodic pop music. It sounds like a sci-fi crooner singing on top of Björk-esque, layered soundscape. The singer’s also gone to the extent of translating messages and song titles that run along the screen with the hypnotic oddness of a 24-hour news channel into Chinese. Philosophical Messages and poetry beam out and it makes you wonder what else is being syphoned in that you don't quite yet realise on surface level. Sustained exposure, as if this were propaganda, may be the only way to fall deeper into the work this unique artists creates.

With the Gigwise showcase done, neo-gothic post-punks SEN are the next real call. The band are darlings of the Taiwanese underground - and look the part. Thanks to an exciting update of old post punk standards, they become one of the most talked about bands of the weekend as it’s a chance to hear them play material from their new debut album on cool Taiwanese label White Wabbit Records. A remarkable release that’s been over ten years in the making.

Come Sunday, the above mentioned shrine after party looms and the first part of the day is spent on a tour with fellow delegates, learning about Chinese medicine and ritual and an obligatory stop at one of the old dispensaries to try the various medicines and teas. It sets the mood brilliantly for the head-melting psychedelia Acid Mothers Temple happening over at Wan Sha Art Hall.

The band, who are from Japan, are as loud as Motörhead were once famed for playing at in their heyday are influenced by prog, Kraut and have an air of Hawkwind about them. The five-piece, who formed in 1995, are one of few heritage bands playing here and play one of the last slots of the weekend, acting as a central point for everyone to gather to bring their LUCfest to an end. The talking point for many long time fans of the band is the ever changing line-up, and the current, youthful one goes under the name Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso UFO and is deemed to be electrifying.

The young drummer Satoshima Nani plays with Bonham-esque flair. He’s an absolute treat to watch. The co-frontman - Jyonson Tsu - wears a disconcerting wig and cape like an escaped member of Rick Wakeman’s band and has a fantastical streak running through his commanding rock frontman bones. The real treat is watching one of the best electric guitar players you'll ever see in Kawabata Makoto. The only member playing today that is part of the first ever line-up of this band, and he’s one that the band wouldn't be able to continue without. A thrilling show to bring 2018’s LUCFest live proceedings to a close.

The exceptional quality of the music at LUCfest overall rings as long as the tinnitus the Japanese psych band induce. How much it has its finger on the pulse in representing hard working live acts with nationwide fanbases hits home as we leave Tainan behind and make a quick loop around the island.

A stop in the small hilly esoteric surfer spot of Dulan, which is one of the most pristine areas of tropical forest meeting sandy beaches in the whole country, is revealing. Here, far from the hustle and bustle of Tainan, the local venue posters promote LUCfest faves Outlet Drift. And I start to feel LUCfest has is representing the indie scene that's active across this beautiful island country, and not see it as a randomly compiled list of bands.

Back in Taipei, the venue Oopmh - a real gem and a must visit for anyone interested in timeless bohemian dens - hosts Hanoi ethereal electronic duo Tiny Giant and they played LUCfest and posters here advertise gigs for post punks SEN.

The after party for this show takes us over to Ivy Palace, in the city’s fascinating industrial quarter Dadaocheng. Run by spiritual environmentalists, the venue is a hub for the city’s alternative scene and hosts open jam’s, dj sets and gigs. It’s fascinating seeing guests from LUCfest all gathered here continuing to see out the most intriguing nightlife in Taiwan. And it’s further proof LUCfest is not only a great platform for the music industry, but an entry point for anyone interested in seeing what Taiwan has to offer music fans; it's a route to connect straight to the heart of its tight-knit yet evolving alternative scene. You could do a lot worse than starting here before immersing youself further into Taiwan's immense cultural riches.

LUCfest 2019 runs in November. Exact dates TBC.

Photo: LUCfest