Shanghai Open Mic Adventure Consolidated:
A micro trailer from the film: From the Shanghai segment of “Out of a Jam.”
A song from the album:
A podcast: with an open mic MC during my year of podcast making with MCs of open mics in 2012. This is Jacky, the owner manager of the Not Me bar with its open mic in Shanghai:
The Thumbnail Guide: Thumbnail Guide to Shanghai Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music
A link to a favorite blog item from the past: Jamming With Tom & Jerry in Shanghai
A favorite video: Joe Chou playing my Seagull Guitar Like a Sitar in 2010 at the Melting Pot:
An excerpt from the Book: from the Shanghai chapter of OUT OF A JAM: An Around-the-World Journey of Healing and Rebirth Through Music:
It had started low key a couple of days before as I wandered the streets of Shanghai near my hotel and saw a poster outside a bar, depicting a folkie with a guitar, singing into a big, fat microphone from the 1940s. The announcement said that every Sunday starting at 8 PM the bar – called “The Blues Room” – hosted an open mic. I couldn’t believe my good fortune that I had stumbled on this place just wandering around the neighbourhood looking for somewhere to eat. I had brought my songbook, capo and picks with me to the Chinese Grand Prix – as I had to a couple of the previous Formula One races in search of a place to play – and I could actually take part in this open mic after the race, once I had finished writing my race report.
The idea of playing at an open mic again after nearly 30 years without ever having played in public – except for a brief moment at a mystery writer’s convention, called Semana Negra, in Spain in 1997 – had been creeping up on me. I suppose it was the emotional weight of Nathalie’s illness and then her death that meant that I was looking for an outlet. I had begun writing songs again, and playing my guitar and singing at home a lot more than before. I had sent off recordings to professional musician friends, and they complimented my singing and a couple of them asked if I had considered doing open mics again, as I had done occasionally from age 18 to 22. I was toying with the idea, yes. I lugged around the songbook and capo and picks, and finally, here in Shanghai, of all places, I had found an open mic.
I managed to write my report quickly – in order to hit my Paris-based International Herald Tribune newspaper’s deadline in Asia – and to take an early shuttle bus to downtown Shanghai from the circuit in the countryside. When I arrived at The Blues Room shortly after 8 PM, there were few people: Only a couple of tables with diners and another with a young woman and a young bearded man, both with guitars.
I asked the MC of the open mic, Nicky Almasy, a Hungarian, if I could borrow a guitar to do some songs. He seemed reluctant at first – was it about the guitar? Something to do with me? Did he doubt my singing abilities? Was I too old? –before he agreed to lend me his guitar and said he’d let me know when I should go up to sing.
My knowledge of open mics was from the 1970s, when I played in Toronto at places like the legendary Fat Albert’s in a church basement, and in places in Greenwich Village like Gerde’s Folk City, where I had played in 1976 and ‘77.
At Gerde’s, performers had to arrive early and line up outside in the street before the venue opened, in order to get a good spot on the list. You had to be there well in advance in order not to wait all night before going on stage. In Shanghai, I suddenly wondered if maybe the idea of an open mic, where anyone could go on stage at a bar and sing a few songs no matter how bad they were as musicians, was like so much else in the booming city as it grabbed the modern world by the balls and tried to flaunt its own: Façade. In less than 20 years, the skyline of Shanghai had grown from the look of a 19th century village to outdoing New York with its skyscrapers. But as one Shanghai Chinese businessman told me: “Most of these buildings are practically empty – there’s nothing inside, nothing behind the façade, just the outer appearance of business going on….”
Now that I was “on the list” in The Blues Room, I took a window seat and ordered a meal. The menu was a mix of Tex Mex and other quasi-American foods. I settled for the simplest: Chicken and French fries. I surveyed the bar and thought how bizarre it was to be in China at such an American-looking joint. The room was dark, with wooden tables and chairs, the stage was big enough for two musicians and it rose less than a foot above the floor, under two or three spotlights. The bar faced the stage on the other side of the room, and a television high up on the wall piped in music videos, with the music also coming through other speakers positioned around the room.
I approached the two young people with the guitars while I waited for my food. I wanted to make contact, as they were the only other musicians apparent.
“You guys playing tonight?”