By the time I arrived at my hotel in Shanghai it was already seven at night. By the time I finished a few work chores it was eight. By the time I found the address on the Internet for Oscar’s Pub, it was going on nine PM.
A quick phone call to Oscar’s and I found that I had to be there by nine for the open mic. At least, that’s what I thought. Turned out, that by the time I arrived at Oscar’s I had plenty of time.
In fact, my immediate feeling was that this English pub, full of Chinese, British, Canadians and Americans, was not going to be the best open mic I have attended overseas. And upon my arrival, I thought, here’s another British pub in a foreign land, and the volume of the talk was so loud I was certain no one was there for music. The evening would prove me wrong.
It was in Shanghai at the Blues Room in October 2008 that I had performed at my first open mic in decades, returning to a period of my life in my late teens and early twenties, that I thought I would never see again.
That night in Shanghai so many open mics ago, I would meet an American expat named Emily, and her brother John, and we kept in touch. So when I returned to Shanghai this year I thought I’d ask Emily if she knew of a place to play, if the Blues Room was still happening.
She immediately suggested Oscar’s. The Blues Room, it turned out, closed down. Just like last year’s venue in Malaysia. This time, I would learn, it had to do with a very high rent, and then the economic crisis.
In any case, Oscar’s ensured that I would have a place to play in Shanghai. I may have been half dead from the 20 hours of travel from Paris to Shanghai via Beijing, but I was not going to miss an opportunity to play. So I did all I could to get there in time.
I ate a dinner of fish and chips and during the meal, I noticed a couple of guys starting to set up a microphone and amplifier.
“Hi,” I said, running over to make sure I got a spot.
“Hi, it’s open mic night,” said the westerner of the two. The other looked Chinese, and would prove to be such – a Mongolian Chinese named Tom Pang, who played a Fender mandolin.
“Great, I brought my guitar,” I said.
“Great. We ll play a couple of songs and call you up.”
That was it, my introduction to Paul Meredith from Michigan. Paul has lived in Shanghai for several years, and before that he lived in Hong Kong. Here he teaches music and plays in a band made up primarily of Mongolians. And he started the open mic at Oscar’s three or four years ago, and has run it ever since, on Wednesday evenings.
Paul makes his living out of music in Shanghai, and he is very enthusiastic about the local musicians, about the expats, and about spreading the musical vibe. I was delighted.
My slight disappointment in this being a very expat-like experience was soon changed, for no sooner had I asked Paul about where to find some authentic Chinese experience than he called up his favorite, fetish Chinese guitar player, Joe Chou, and had him come around to play a couple of songs.
Already, however, Paul had this fabulous mandolin player, Tom Pang.
“Tom went to the Berklee School of Music,” Paul told me. It turned out that Tom applied, got accepted and had his tuition covered by Berklee.
This was an amazing coup, I told Tom, and he agreed. His English was passable, but not great. The moments I enjoyed most of his mandolin playing were in between songs when he kept returning to some Irish, Scottish Celtic jigs and reels. Here’s one of Tom between songs (as Brooke prepares to sing):
But he also handles pop and rock leads very well, and Paul told me his band of Mongolian music aces plays mostly bluegrass. What? Stick around.
Sticking on the Chinese theme, I want to say that I was NOT let down by Joe Chou. This guy came in without hardly a word of English and he sat down and whipped out his Martin guitar and started playing it in such a way as to make it sound like a Chinese instrument. Almost like a sitar at some points, as well, and even very much like middle eastern music at other points. And his blues and slide playing was magic. I turned to Brooke, one of the singers of the evening and told her, “Hey, you have guys who play like this in North and South Carolina…”
She was from North Carolina and here teaching English at Disney. But she did a great version of Carolina on my Mind and Summertime.
To finish off with Joe Chou, however, I should say that he ended up trying out my guitar, my Seagull S6, falling in love with it as everyone does all over the world. It stood up to his Martin with no problem at all – just like the day I bought it and compared it to a Martin, preferring the Seagull.
Paul said that he believes Joe is the most important guitar player in Shanghai, or maybe all of China, as he plays this incredible mixture of sounds that combines Chinese music with Western blues and rock. I must agree that his tapping, his slide, his blues, his Chinese music, all drove me made with pleasure. But also a desire to walk out the door and leave my guitar behind perhaps forever.
Chou plays around town and has released a CD. But Paul wants to promote his career and take him to other cities and show him off to the world. I can see why. He’s authentic. Below I have put in a video of him playing a Chinese song on my guitar. I will put up more videos (keep posted here) as soon as my bandwidth increases, because in my hotel it is a BIG drag. Slow as anything. But as with the longer video of his slide playing, this too is amazing:
Paul himself played several cover songs, and he was very pleased to play one for me that he wrote about trying to have Bob Dylan play in China. He said the song was inspired by the fact of Dylan having been refused to be allowed to play here. So the song is all about Shanghai inviting Dylan, even during one of the lines, Paul invites Dylan to play at Oscar’s.
I am punch happy about having been able to play in a place where Bob Dylan could not. My turn behind the mic was in fact the first of the evening’s amateur musicians. When I performed the room was full of people still, and I had the idea that I was going to be the ONLY musician turning up for the open mic.
In fact, it was non stop until midnight or so with local expats playing and joining in with Tom on mandolin, and Paul on guitar. A very large cross section of Americans, Brits and Canadians.
In addition to Brooke, there was another Tom, Tom Mangione, who was a good songwriter, and who had written a story about Joe Chou that I linked to above. He played some humorous songs and others.
There was a woman who was a Janis Joplin soundalike – well, almost – and who was very pleased when I told her that. “You know the fastest way to this woman’s heart,”
And there was another Canadian who Paul said had a tenor voice like mine. Not sure that’s what I have, but he said we could both hit the high notes.
Oh, yes, almost forgot. I sang Crazy Love, I sang Father and Son, and then Paul joined me playing the mandolin himself on my Just Like a Woman. I then finished off with my song, Since You Left Me.
Altogether it went over very well, even if this was indeed a crowd that loves to talk even during the music. But I could see people listening to me, and I knew it was appreciated. Just as the rest of the evening’s music was appreciated, despite the chatter.
To conclude, it was an all evening nonstop success of an open mic with a beautiful mixture of the local musicians and the expats. And Emily was dead right that this would be a place I’d enjoy. She also suggested a place called Bee Dee’s, and I had that confirmed at Oscar’s when Paul and Janis told me that I should go to Beedee’s on Thursday night, as there was a jam there too.
And that was another great thing about Oscar’s; I managed to map out the rest of the weekend. Following Bee Dee’s, on Sunday night there is a place called Aran’s, and I should also stop into the Blarney Stone, around the corner from Oscar’s, where they like Irish music, surprise, surprise.
There are other possibilities, which I will not go into, but will see how it all plays out. So stay tuned.
Here’s Joe Chou on the slide and singing: