Stage lights flash and plastic sheeting snaps as organizers hustle to prepare for veteran Chinese rocker Cui Jian and his first big solo show in Beijing in 12 years.
Cui, 44, regularly jams in Beijing bars but he hasn't played a major venue in his hometown since 1993. The concert, titled "A Dream in the Sunshine" is scheduled for Saturday at the Capital Stadium in the heart of the city. Cui won fame in the late 1980s with songs such as "Nothing to my Name," voicing the hopes and anxieties of a generation of Chinese entering adulthood after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of orthodox communism.
His songs then were relatively straightforward rock ballads, weighted with daringly honest lyrics and a gritty vocal style. Since then, he's added hip hop, funk and reggae sounds to his signature style. The cacophonous bustle of sound check and tuning guitars stops as Cui steps up to test the microphone during rehearsals Friday. Strumming a guitar, the man often referred to as China's Bob Dylan belts out a few lyrics in a voice that's half-gravel, half-mead, and for a minute the stadium is quiet as people wait to see if he'll keep singing, but he stops.
Dozens of hangers-on, from relatives to groupies to ex-managers, loiter around the 10,000 seat stadium soaking up the atmosphere as Cui and his band rehearse. Cui checks the microphones, repeatedly lifting his trademark baseball cap emblazoned with a bright red star to run a hand through his thinning hair.
Liu Yuan, the band's notoriously testy saxophone player and a Jazz club owner, snipes at a photographer for getting too close while Eddie Randriamampionona, the perpetually laid back Madagascan guitarist, slips out of the stadium for a smoke.
Maybe, but in a nod to criticism like Huang's, Cui's Beijing show Saturday is set to have strobes and filtered lights, drizzling confetti, digital artwork flashing on a massive screen behind the stage and back-up singers and dancers. Xiao Rulian, a 76-year-old folk singer wearing a black turban, embroidered shoes and heavy, stone-encrusted jewelry, is one of the back-up singers. A member of the Naxi ethnic minority tribe from southern Yunnan, Xiao sits near the stage apparently marveling at the lights and a frantic drum sample that's thumping out of the massive speakers.
Xiao's plaintive singing in her native Naxi dialect is just one of the many elements of Cui's fifth and latest album, "Show You Color," that was released in March. Problems with communist authorities who refused permission for concerts and censored lyrics have constrained his popularity in recent years - along with the changing tastes of young Chinese who increasingly favor light pop over Cui's hybrid sound.
Cui, a classically trained trumpet player, used to wear peasant clothes onstage in a nod China's agrarian revolution and the communist upbringing that both nurtured and constrained his creativity. Today he sports urban chic - drab olive T-shirts and loose khaki pants, but he still sings about the disenfranchised and celebrates "The Power of the Powerless," the title of his fourth album. Singing about migrant workers and Internet-addicted teenagers, as Cui does on his latest album, might not sell out the Capital Stadium but it keeps him true to his vision, AP reports.