First, a word of warning: The following blog post is far, far, far too long. But I had more than an hour to kill in the back seat of a taxi during a manic drive up the emergency lanes and down the soft shoulders of the off ramps from downtown Shanghai to the Formula One circuit. So my pen went wild – or rather my fingers, my verbal diahorea – and I just spewed out every thought that came into my head.
The Executive Summary would read this way: Went back to Oscar’s Pub and got a chance in a lifetime to play as a quartet with Paul Meredith and Tom & Jerry from Inner Mongolia. Tom played mandolin and violin and Jerry played banjo. Paul played guitar and sang, and I played guitar and sang. We did some of their songs and some of the ones that I usually do. I had the time of my life playing a full set of probably 40 minutes with this trio at one of Shanghai’s best known, best loved, expat bars – with a Chinese touch.
My only regret was that I did not record any videos of me playing with the band. On the other hand, Paul has invited me back again tonight to play with the band, and I will probably take up that offer, and make some videos.
In the meantime, I’m putting in three videos below to show the range of what unlikely and unusual and cool band does. Beneath the three videos the nut cases among you – like me – will want to read my more than 2000 word report written during the mad taxi ride to distract myself from the fast-moving, ever dangerous, fear-inducing scenery unfolding outside the windows of the run-away cab. (By the way, in the second video, a member of the pub crowd got up to sing with Paul & the Mongolians – showing the casual nature of this set at Oscar’s.)
And here is the far too long post that I wrote in the cab, and which really belongs in the book section of this blog, but which will just be a “bonus” of this post:
Paul Meredith on Wednesday had invited me to come and listen to his band at Oscar’s on Friday. This was the group that consisted of Paul on guitar, and Tom and Jerry from Inner Mongolia on mandolin and banjo. I was very curious about the band, and Oscar’s was a great pub so I decided to go. In any case, there was nothing available in the way of open mics or jams anywhere else except at Bee Dees, where the evening’s show would turn into a jam at the end of the night, but where I had played two sets the day before.
So figuring they’d had enough of me at Bee Dees, I returned as a spectator to Oscar’s. But here again would be another life lesson, and one that this time I learned only thanks to a last minute prodding by a Formula One colleague, Adam Hay-Nicholls, of Metro newspaper among other outlets. The shuttle bus back from the circuit to the Intercontinental Hotel in Shanghai left either at 6 PM, which was tool early, or at 8 PM, which was a little too late.
So we arrived at the hotel just after 9 PM and I had a decision to make. As usual, I started thinking aloud to Adam, who was not going to accompany me to Oscar’s because he other plans.
“What I can’t decide is if I should go and get my guitar or not?” I said.
I would have to take a cab to my hotel, 15 minutes away, and then drop off my computer, cameras, and other journalist paraphernalia. Then I would have to take another cab to Oscar’s. I would arrive close to 10 PM. But if I chose to take a cab directly to Oscar’s, I would arrive before 9:30, and would therefore not be too late for a meal.
But the real, true crux of the matter was whether I should return to the hotel in order to get my guitar. I had not been invited to Oscar’s to play music, but to listen to music. On the other hand, I had also heard from Paul that the Blarney Stone was just around the corner, and I might be able to impose myself behind the mic there. Furthermore, I still kept it in the back of my mind that I might go to Bee Dees again after Oscar’s.
I spent about five minutes worrying over this question and Adam remained silent. I had invited him to Oscar’s, and learned of his other plans. But I continued to worry aloud.
Finally, I said, “Ah, forget it. I’ll just go directly there and not take the guitar.”
During my worrying, I had mentioned at one point that if I did have ambitions to play and impose myself behind the mic at Oscar’s, then having my guitar make the power of imposition a little stronger and more difficult to resist by the imposed upon party – Paul.
But in the end, I decided that if circumstances really merited, I could borrow a guitar.
No sooner had I decided what I would do, “I’m going directly there – of course I’ll have all this gear to carry with me….” than Adam said, “No, go back to your hotel and take your guitar. At least that way, if you have to carry around something, it will be more fun to carry the guitar than all that stuff.”
“You’re right!” I said, looking at my big computer bag full of cameras, cables, recorders and the computer. And also realizing my hands were full of several large envelopes of papers.
So I returned to my hotel, took my guitar and went to Oscar’s, arriving just before 10 PM. Paul and Tom and Jerry were setting up behind the microphones for a set, and I went over and shook their hands. The first thing Paul said to me was: “Did you bring your guitar?” I had propped it up near the bar, so he couldn’t see it with me. “Yes, I did,” I said. “Okay, maybe we’ll get you up to play…we’ll talk.”
Wow, that sounded interesting. But also slightly ominous. What did he mean by ‘talk’?
In any case, I sat down at the bar and ordered fish and chips – I had had it the first night and it was good – and I listened to the band.
This was a very tight band, and with two guys from Inner Mongolia playing bluegrass, traditional Irish music and Neil Young, it was a treat. When I arrived, Tom greeted me warmly, as we had met two days earlier. This time he was not only playing mandolin, but he had a violin when I arrived, and played it much of the set. Jerry played banjo. Paul this time had his Martin cut-away, and I could understand why he did not use it on the Wednesday. With everyone using his guitar on Wednesday during the open mic, he would not have wanted to pass around the beautiful Martin.
The band was, as I said, very tight. They played “Star of the County Down,” and I chuckled and recorded it, because it is one of the songs I have the lyrics for in my guitar bag, and which I occasionally play for myself, if not in public. It is one of the songs in the songbook that my friend Charles de Lint gave me when I was 15, and which I still have today. (Charles wrote out the songbook in a Nothing Book – a bound hardback with blank pages – and he had spilled coffee on the table and the edge of the pages, so he gave me the book. It was filled with traditional celtic songs and chords in Charles’ calligraphic handwriting.)
They played a lesser known Neil Young song, and some bluegrass and country. It was extraordinary to see and hear these two Inner Mongolians playing this American music. Tom, remember, had gone to Berklee – a summer program, by the way – with all expenses paid. I asked Jerry where he learned to play this music, and he said, “Just by myself.” So imagine some local guy in Inner Mongolia listening to and teaching himself bluegrass and Celtic music. Good thing there’s an English pub in Shanghai for them to come together – and Paul to tie the two in.
During their set I ate my meal and struck up a conversation with a Quebecois, who was actually born in France and lived in France until he was 18, when he moved to Canada. He was a chef, trained in an apprenticeship as a teenager in Canada, and now he worked as the chef at the Parkyard Hotel Shanghai, his name being David Jean Marteau.
After Paul finished his set he approached me and said, “You’re going to play with us!”
Whoa! That was it! That was what he wanted to discuss.
“Yes,” I said. “Okay! Great!”
He said they would take a 20 minute break and then we’d play together.
I continued my talk with xxx and I ate my dessert, an apple crumble. And my nerves began attacking me – a little. Paul had certainly detected, and certainly understood, the need for relaxing and preparing oncself mentally for singing. Because on both Wednesday and this Friday evening, he said, “You’ve had a beer now, so you should be ready, a little relaxed.”
But the prospect of playing with Paul and the Mongolians filled me with more trepidation than if I was only going to play by myself. I mean, what was he talking about? We had never played together, how would we do it, who’s songs would we sing? My reperatoire or theirs? If it was theirs, I was certain I would be entirely lost. The only times I had played with bands, I had done it with my songs, the songs I knew. I had not jumped in and truly jammed – well, except amongst the anarchists in Italy outside Monza last year – and I was certain I would stand there looking like a fool.
My fears about the repertoire were confirmed when finally we all got up to play. And there is a detail I have forgotten to mention: Oscar’s had a very good crowd of people. It was equal to or more than the size of the one that turned out on Wednesday, and this time it was not just a bunch of musicians, but a real audience of carousers.
So there I was, going up in front of an audience to join these three excellent musicians in front of a crowd of expats drinking, dancing and waiting for good music. It did not help that moments before I went up behind the mic I heard one spectator say, “No, I want to stay and wait for the band to go up again. I want to hear that mandolin player. The guy’s really good.”
Something to that effect. In any case, it left me wondering if I would spoil the party. Fortunately, Paul had no qualms about propping the lyrics and chords up in front of us for my reference. But still, I’m a slow learner and usually have to spend weeks on a song before I feel confident enough to play it in public.
The first song we played, I don’t know what it was. I was too out of it and feeling silly. I had a hell of a time keeping up with Paul’s chords, and there were several moments I wondered what I was doing up there.
Paul introduced me to the audience, talking about how I had showed up on Wednesday to play in the open mic just hours after my arrival in the country. I had been exhausted, but it had been worth it.
I felt Paul could see that I was having a hard time, so we moved into more neutral territory, choosing songs from his songbook that I knew – so we both knew them. And we stuck with simple: “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” of Bob Dylan, just four chords. I sang and played, and the other three played too. It moved, it held together.
But I could not yet let it rip, let it fly. Then we found another Dylan, one that I do and they do, and that I know the words to by heart: I Shall Be Released, Dylan again. I started pumping up a bit better here, letting it fly a bit better.
I cannot remember the order – I’d had two beers by now – but we also did Whiskey in the Jar. This time, I decided I’d be better off not playing my guitar, but just concentrating on the singing. I let it rip a lot more this time, and I could see the audience liked the song.
Unfortunately I was standing in such a position as to block a path to the second floor, to the toilets, to another room, and I had to shift about every three seconds for people walking by. That did not make the guitar playing easy, or even singing into the mic.
Nor did it make it easy to look at the audience. But I could see that the audience had gathered around the bar in a group and they were looking at me, and listening to me, and apparently happy to have a new element to their house band. I would learn that there were a lot of regulars there at one of Shanghai’s favorite expat bars. So they knew the band, and I was a newcomer.
I had shown Paul my song sheets that I had packed in my guitar case and he had been very intrigued by Year of the Cat by Al Stewart, “You do that?” I said I did, and he wanted to try it.
So here I finally turned to doing one of my own songs that I sing regularly, and here, I was able to really let it rip really full out. And the three other musicians played along with these more complicated chords, and Paul did the guitar lead bits, and so did Tom on the mandolin.
I also did Father and Son and Paul and I exchanged duties on the little string plucking part at the beginning and before each verse, while Tom took control of the lead during the instrumental break part.
They also played Harvest Moon, by Neil Young, and St. Quentin, by Johnny Cash, and some others, which few I just rubbed shoulders with, playing the chords and trying inanely to play lead on.
In the end, I not only survived, however, but both the musicians and the audience expressed their delight at my singing. And I felt my strength as a musician, my sense of boundaries and experience, grow. And I just had an absolutely fabulous time playing in the band with the two wonder boys from Inner Mongolia, and Paul Meredith, from Michigan.
And the life lesson here is again the one we always tend to forget: Take that little extra step, that little risk, make that move you’re not sure will lead anywhere, for it probably will. Had I not heeded Adam’s words, I’d have gone to Oscar’s without my guitar, and I’d not have played with the band. Perhaps Paul would have leant me his guitar for one or two songs, but this would not have been the same thing as exposing myself with their songs, and joining in and making a quartet out of it.
My only regret, and that shows where I still have not learned the lesson, is that I did not take that extra little step to record my playing with the band. On the other hand, Paul extended his invitation to me to return Saturday to play. So I may still have a chance to at least share a little video of me playing with Paul and the Mongolians. For the moment, take a look at the videos I made of them playing without me.