After getting canceled three years in a row due to the city’s pandemic-related restrictions and political unrest, Clockenflap returned with a record-breaking attendance of more than 80,000 throughout its three-day run. It’s inspiring to witness one of the most prominent music festivals in Asia get back on its feet and fight its way back to relevancy.
It cannot be overstated, however, that Clockenflap succeeded in positioning itself as a family-friendly festival worth packing your bags for, especially if you’re seeking a destination festival that ticks all the boxes when it comes to programming.
Set against the backdrop of city skylines and breathtaking views of the harbor, Hong Kong’s premier music festival offered a laid-back reprieve from the metropolitan noise. There were a substantial number of toddler-toting parents basking in the afternoon sun for a picnic. A mix of locals, expats, and tourists, hopped from one stage to another to experience the beauty of discovering the unknown. And then there were people who strategically plotted their schedule in advance to make it to the front row with the best view of the stage.
Clockenflap felt like visiting a weekend market for folks of all ages, except that it’s clearly a music festival by design, with a myriad of interactive activities and architectural installations that you can enjoy.
And not to be overwhelmed by its scale, the festival reigned supreme with its carefully curated lineup, distancing itself from Gen-Z baiting contemporaries or buzzy newcomers peddling aspirational cool. While there’s a heavy presence of touring acts that have set their sights on rocking the region and its nearby cities, you can easily count on Clockenflap to tap headliners that have made the biggest impact in the industry and blurred cultural lines with their time-tested classics.
Wu-Tang Clan, a pioneering and highly influential force in hip-hop for more than three decades now, pushed the production forward with a performance that earned its own position in the pantheon of greats. They brought the ruckus in their compelling signature manner, laying down a set list of greatest hits anthems and a few incredible surprises, including an Ol’ Dirty Bastard tribute and an unlikely cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The iconic group also drew the loudest cheers when they started acknowledging the impact of Hong Kong cinema in shaping their work on a stylistic level. Wrapping up the final day with a gesture of genuine appreciation for the city and an audience throwing peace signs in the air, Wu-Tang Clan’s set provided a catharsis from the uncertainty of the city’s political climate.
Another highlight was The Cardigans’ performance, which transported listeners into a haven of nostalgia-filled tunes on the second day of the festival. Strutting unabashed sultriness, lead singer Nina Persson commanded the stage without needing to lift a finger. Her voice alone, piercing and completely enveloped in delicate huskiness, is enough to draw fans back to their commercial and artistic prime. From their sing-along staples “Love Fool,” “Erase/Rewind,” “Carnival,” and “My Favorite Game,” to more obscure tracks such as “Holy Love” and “Hanging Around,” the alternative pop/rock band performed a 16-song set that, while slightly marred by technical difficulties, proved to be a spiritual experience.
Speaking of standouts, it would be a disservice not to mention The Arctic Monkeys and Phoenix in the same sentence. Both day one headliners raised the profile of Clockenflap with their brand of crossover blockbuster tracks that got everyone fired up and jumping in euphoric glory. In addition, there is something about Kings of Convenience’s riveting state of calm that deserves some merit. The indie folk-pop duo performed songs from their 2021 album, “Peace Or Love,” as well as notable classics such as “Homesick,” “Misread,” “Cayman Islands,” and “I’d Rather Dance With You.” And boy, do they sound transcendent even in pared down moments.
Going around multiple stages in search of a new musical discovery or a soul-deep connection with an entertainer you just came across requires a great deal of stamina and commitment. Once curiosity becomes admiration, and you see yourself slowly surrendering to its magnetic pull, then that’s when you know you’re on the right track. As someone who is familiar with the feeling, it’s always rewarding to navigate the festival grounds with nothing to expect but endless wandering and wondering.
MONO’s set in particular left me speechless and begging for more. The Japanese post-rock band hit the sweet spot with beautiful quiet parts and expansive builds that rarely lose its footing. The music, on the other hand, waltzes dramatically into the spotlight, never overwhelming even as it gestures into suspenseful darkness. Bombay Bicycle Club received a roar of recognition after delivering career-defining showstoppers that elevated their status from cult favorites to fully fledged rock stars. Their set involved a lot of dancing, confetti cannons, and even a solid cover of Selena Gomez’s “Lose You To Love Me.”
I also find myself surprisingly enamored with artists that maintain a low profile, yet bursting at the seams with so much potential and star power. Ezra Collective’s set was heavy on genre-bending improvisations and cosmic noodling. The British jazz quintet makes intimate spaces feel like a place for love and worship when they perform. There’s also the Japanese indie band CHAI, whose eclectic blend of kawaii sensibilities and flamboyant theatricality was a joy to watch. There’s greatness in how they bring an incredible level of confidence on stage while injecting camp and silliness into their performance. They’re a self-aware bubblegum act clad in coordinated pink outfits, a riot grrrl mafia preaching the gospel of feminism, and a hyperpop band summoned by SOPHIE to bring a sense of adventure in pop music. I could go on and on, and try really hard to pin down what goes on in their crazy, crazy minds. Seeing the wholesomeness turn into some form of carnivalesque edge was a highlight that I’m proud to have experienced. No other contemporary pop group is as adept as CHAI when it comes to reinvention.
And this may come as no surprise, but I find myself loving every bit of Ben&Ben’s well-applauded stint at the main stage. Breathing sunshine and gravitas into every song, the nine-piece collective delivered chest-beating anthems wrapped in a tight musical package.
One particular sentiment that keeps hovering whenever a Filipino act makes it to a prestigious festival like Clockenflap, is that it’s toxic to bask in "Pinoy Pride" especially when it reinforces one’s thirst for validation. Despite the fact that this might be partially accurate, I still think Ben&Ben left no crumbs and put on a really captivating show. Their closing song, “Ride Home” got the entire audience dancing to their world music-inspired folk. They also performed a mix of English and Filipino songs, making sure to claim their unique imprint regardless of who they’re playing for and who’s watching them.
“We chose a good balance of surefire hits — songs that have been staples of ours in our performances at home, as well as songs we may not perform as often but truly believe are representative of our wider range of sound and capabilities,” Paolo Benjamin said.
But when I asked him about sharing the lineup with some of the world’s biggest acts, Paolo can’t help but gush. “To be there on that same poster as performers really feels like a crazy dream come true, and we can’t wait to see who else among our music heroes we’ll get to share the same stage with in the future.”
Perhaps, there is nothing wrong with expressing optimism about circumstances that might have been deemed despairing a few years ago. After a moment of hanging tight to the prospect of seeing light at the end of the tunnel, Ben&Ben weathered adversity with a renewed sense of perspective and maturity, and it shows in their well-received performance.
Clockenflap made a triumphant comeback that might be an inch close to perfection. The city has lifted its mask mandate arrangement, ending its global isolation in an effort to attract more international tourists. Hope finds home in the unexpected, and we’ll always find a way to thrive, if not regain what was lost.