Keith Goodman, director of the H2 Live Music Festival, talks about The Wanch and Hong Kong’s local music scene

Right in the heart of Wan Chai, The Wanch is a testament to Hong Kong’s vibrant and enduring live music culture.

Keith Goodman, director of the H2 Live Music Festival, talks about The Wanch and Hong Kong’s local music scene
Source: Oliver Spiesshofer/The Wanch

Right in the heart of Wan Chai, The Wanch is a testament to Hong Kong’s vibrant and enduring live music culture. Established in 1987, this legendary venue has earned its reputation as a haven for musicians and music lovers alike, offering a uniquely diverse range of performances that spans just about every genre and style you can imagine. But The Wanch is more than just a bar with live entertainment; it's a community hub where the heart of Hong Kong’s local music scene beats each night.

Each year, the H2 Festival, the city’s longest live music festival, offers a massive sample of The Wanch’s year-round diversity. Starting out as a one-day event back in 2010, it’s back for its 15th year, starting June 24 for a whopping 10 days and featuring 100 artists. Whether you're a devoted fan of a local band or a curious newcomer eager to explore the city's underground music scene, The Wanch’s H2 Live Music Festival offers an experience unlike any other. 

TMS caught up with fest director Keith Goodman to learn more about the history, spirit and future of Hong Kong’s iconic The Wanch venue and its H2 Live Musical Festival.

Q: Tell us more about the origins of the H2 music festival. What was the initial inspiration? Where did it all start?

Well, the first time was in 2010, just after the old Wanch had changed ownership. We wanted to have an event to announce the fact that it was under new ownership and to celebrate fresh energy and fresh ideas. So we organized a festival – at that time, it was called the “Handover Hallelujah Festival,” which was a play on the fact that the business had been handed over to new owners and also because it happened on the 1st of July, which was at that time known as the “Handover holiday.” After four or five years, we changed “Handover Hallelujah” to H2, and it’s been known as that ever since.

So, it was a one-day event to start with and a great success. A lot of artists who weren't playing at that first event said, “Oh, we'd like to have played at that. When's the next one? Can we play next time?” So, by the time we did the follow-up event, which was a year later, we were up to two days. And then the following year, I think it was four days, and then it got to a week and then to eight days, and this year, in 2024, we're now going to have 10 days with 100 artists.

Q: Why The Wanch? What is it about this venue that sets it apart from others around Hong Kong?

The Wanch is one of the longest-standing bars in Hong Kong of any description, let alone live music venues. We first opened in 1987 in the old location, so that is 37 years this year. It's always been a place for people who play music and people who enjoy live music to gather. I guess we like to feel that we're at the center of the local musicians’ community, and also, we pride ourselves on playing live at The Wanch being a right of passage for new bands.

I think another thing that makes us different from a lot of other venues is that we have different artists on every night. We don't have a house band, so typically, in any given week, we would probably have between 20 and 30 different artists performing, and I think that makes us different. It also enables us to give lots and lots of different artists the opportunity to play.

Q: How has the H2 Festival changed over the years?

The main change is it's got bigger. I guess the first one was quite hastily put together – one day, 12 artists, not too much razzmatazz, just live music, which was obviously what was at the core. Now we’ve got 10 days this year, 100 artists. We've got six sponsors, there will be stickers and programs and, you know, sponsor’s promos and all that jazz. So the main difference is it’s just got bigger – and long may that continue. The bigger it gets, the more artists want to be part of it. Who knows how many days we’ll be doing in years to come?

Well, we certainly don't follow trends. We like to be a venue where anybody of any musical genre can have the opportunity to play. This year, we've got an acapella group playing. In past years, we've had the Hong Kong Pipe Band. Really, I would welcome choirs, anything that is “musical,” in however broad a definition anyone might wish to apply to the word, to be part of H2. I don't think people want to hear 100 artists that all sound very similar, so we absolutely embrace diversity and a range of genres and styles – and abilities, for that matter. 

I encourage people to just come down and enjoy any evening of the festival because there's not a rock night and a jazz night and a pop night; we have all genres back-to-back, so if you come down for an evening, you’ll see at least 10 different artists who will probably cover five or six different genres. I guarantee you’ll love at least two or three of them. You'll probably hate a couple, and the rest will be somewhere in between. We have very quick changeovers between bands. Everyone plays for half an hour. It’s quite competitive between the artists. I think everybody wants to stand out, so they tend to bring their “A game.” So, if you want to sample a selection of what's available in Hong Kong week in, week out, there's no better place to do that than at the H2 Festival. 

Q: H2 is known for hosting large numbers of artists over the course of a few days. How do you organize this, ensuring the enjoyment of both the artists and the audience?

Even though it’s got bigger over the years, it’s sort of got easier, I think – that's a dangerous thing to say, I'm inviting disaster – because I've got used to doing it. We start the process just after Chinese New Year. We invite applications from anyone who's interested in playing, and we ask people to specify when they're available and when they're not available. Then, we try to say no to as few people as possible because we want to give everyone the chance. That’s really the main ethos – to give people the chance to play. And this year, we’ve added on two extra days in mid-July, the 13th and 14th to give bands who we don't know or we've not seen before their opportunity to play as well. We're calling the extra two days the “H2 Grass Roots Weekender” on Saturday the 13th and Sunday the 14th of July. 

Q: It can be said that the sheer number of artists, especially with the upcoming 2024 lineup, is something that distinguishes the H2 Festival from others in Hong Kong. In your own words, how would you say the festival sets itself apart from other music festivals?

I don't know whether it's unique, but it's free. It’s walk-in, and on any given night, you'll get a range of artists. There’ll be original music, there’ll be covers and there’ll be different styles. It’s like a musical buffet. Why wouldn’t people want to go to H2?

Q: When it comes to deciding on the lineup, what do you look for?

As I mentioned before, we try not to say no. So, a lot of the artists who’ve played at The Wanch throughout the year, we know them, and we've seen them before. So, part of H2 is to showcase what The Wanch is all about. It's an opportunity in a relatively short space of time to sample what we do all year round. We hope people come to The Wanch for the first time because they’ve heard about the festival; we’re pretty sure they’re going to have a good time, so they’ll want to come back at other times of the year as well. 

Q: What do you hope the audience will get out of their time at the H2 Live music festival? What do you want them to go home remembering or feeling?

I want people to leave with a smile on their faces and to wake up the next day thinking, “I should do that more often.” Especially for people who aren't regulars at The Wanch already. Take a chance, spend an evening away from Netflix or social media or whatever people tend to do these days and come down and see and feel the energy of live music. And hopefully, go away saying, you know, “I should have been doing that before. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to discover The Wanch. I didn’t realize there were so many great music artists in Hong Kong. I'm going to go out and watch live bands once a week, twice a month,” whatever it might be. 

Q: What about the artists? What do you want them to get out of performing at the festival?

I want them to have a great time, and that means during their own performance, but also I want them to enjoy the other artists. One thing that I think is very good in Hong Kong is that artists do tend to support other artists. There is a community. I think it's actually something we’re very good at in Hong Kong, so I hope there'll be a kind of a sense of team spirit – support each other, enjoy each other’s music, meet other musicians. Who knows what sort of creative collaborations that might lead to? 

The other thing that H2 offers the bands is a new audience, and the bands want to impress. On a 10-band lineup or 12-band lineup one evening, they want to be the one that people remember. So the bands do bring their best performances. Most only get a half an hour slot, so that means they can really focus on their best material. There can be a really positive circle of energy between a band and an audience. I think that what’s great about live music rather than recorded music is that there's a sort of energy transfer back and forth between the performers and the audience, and when that happens, it's a magical feeling.

Q: What are some memorable moments that stick out in your mind the most about the previous festivals?

I think that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The festival, as an entity, brings more than 400 musicians onto the same stage. There’s this great energy they bring that is then enhanced by the reaction of the audience. That's what I remember. The pleasure that that brings to the performers and the audience is what gives me my reward and the return on the investment of time to put the whole thing together.

Q: How do your own passions line up with the festival? How do you see yourself in your work?

I’m very proud of being involved with The Wanch because I think it plays a vital role in the city's culture by giving musicians the opportunity to perform, and the festival is an extension of that. There’s nothing more satisfying to me than to be standing in the crowd and overhearing somebody saying, “I’ve never seen this band before. I came to watch my friend’s band, but these guys are on, and they’re great. I’m going to find out when they’re playing next and see them again.” That is what it’s all about for me – enabling people to discover what I know is already out there.

Q: How would you sum up and describe the festival in a few words to someone who hasn’t experienced it and is considering going?

Music, energy, fun, free. 

Q: What’s the one thing you look forward to the most about H2?

Well, at this time of year, a few days before the event, the one thing I'm looking forward to is the start. By the time I’m on to the second half of the event, I’m probably looking forward to the end because I'm exhausted! 

The most satisfying thing for me is just to watch the audience during a performance and share their enjoyment of it. That’s what makes it worthwhile for me.

The survivors' photo was fun last year. Everybody, whether they were a performer or people who’d been in the audience throughout the week, on the last night of the festival, we had a survivors’ photo with everyone wearing their H2 T-shirts. That was good fun. Hopefully, we can do that again with more people this year.