Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

Living a Dream at “Dreams of Old Shanghai” Restaurant and Cabaret

April 14, 2012

There was a moment last night between my two sets at the Dreams of Old Shanghai restaurant that I had a flash and said, “Did I once have a dream about this sequence happening to me before?” It was one of those deja vu moments that don’t necessarily happen, but you wonder if they did…. Now if that sounds a little confusing, just imagine the situation last night in Shanghai when I ended up on stage in this chic restaurant night club where a large cast of singers and dancers had previously occupied the stage in a long and colorful program of 1930s nostalgia of old Shanghai.

The evening had started quiet enough. After having two nights of playing at open mics in China I opted to have a very quiet night eating noodles, reading in my hotel room and just going to bed early. But regular readers of this blog will know that I generally like musical adventures and I have learned while in far off and exotic countries that I must always be ready for them. I have occasionally gone out thinking there was no place to play and have not taken my guitar with me because of that defeatist way of thinking, only to discover that I find a place where I could have played if I had my guitar with me.

So despite my intention of simply going over to the De Xing Noodle House on Guangdong Lu, eating a big bowl of noodles and returning to my hotel to read, I said, “Hey, take the fucking guitar. You never know what you might run into.” So I took the guitar, found the noodle house, ate the sublime bowl of noodles and then said it was time to return to the hotel. But not quite. No. I needed dessert.

There was nothing on offer at the noodle house, which was closing anyway, since it was now 10 PM. So I set off to find a place selling something sweet. I decided, however, that my route for that would including taking in the street where there are a bunch of musical instrument stores, Jinling Donglu, to see if it was worth a visit next week after the race and before my trip to Bahrain.

So I go to Jinling Donglu, window shop, and continue my search for dessert. Lo and behold, at the end of the street, at No. 229 Jinling E. Road, and before I was about to return in the direction of my hotel, I saw a big sign on the front of a building: Dessert. So I crossed the street and entered the building. Once inside I saw the dessert joints were closed, but I heard what sounded like live music coming from up an escalator. And it sounded like traditional Chinese music, with a woman singer. I was intrigued.

So I took the escalator, went up and found a couple of restaurants, one of which was called, “Dreams of old Shanghai.” It was elaborate, ornate, classy, and I was immediately invited in by the people at the door. I said, “Live music?” Wanting to check it out, and they said I could look. I craned my neck around the entrance and saw this wonderful stage with full lighting, a curtain, and a cabaret revue of Chinese women dancers and a singer. Holy shit, a real Chinese stage revue here. Very cool! The restaurant appeared vaguely retro, posh, and very, very Chinese.

“Come in and eat,” said the guy at the door.

“I already had my meal,” I said.

“No problem, just come in and have a drink!”

Then he noticed my guitar bag and said, “Guitar?” I said yes. “Come in and play?” he asked me. I gestured to the stage. “There?” He said, “Yes, yes, come in and play.”

This I could not quite believe under the context, with this posh cabaret in old style, and here I was a kind of old hippie with a battered guitar…. (And short hair, granted.)

Then the manager showed up and door and did some more persuading and I asked if there was a cover charge, and was told there was not. So I asked if there were desserts. “Yes.”

So I thought, Okay, I’ll go in and watch the show, make videos, have a beer and eat that dessert I wanted. I did not really think the offer to go on stage would materialize.

I watched the show, ate a fabulous cheese cake, with ice cream and blueberry sauce and mango and kiwi chunks, and drank an Asahi beer. This was bloody bliss. And to top it off, I was sure that every one of those beautiful dancers and singers was staring directly at me. A magician dropped by and showed me a couple of tricks, and then after I finished my cake, someone came around and asked if I would now take to the stage and play.

It was a tremendous stage, wonderful lighting, I felt the room to be completely laid back in a way that I had not at first imagined. But the class singing and dancing acts were so Chinese and classy that I still wondered what I could possibly sing from my repertoire to not feel like the French proverbial “hair on the soup.”

No problem, I finally decided. This is too much fun, and as it turned out, I had noticed a table of several young European women sitting not far from mine, and I was sure that if the Chinese could not relate to my songs, they certainly would be able to.

So I went on stage and found my guitar dreadfully out of tune after I had forgotten that Joe Chou had done an open tuning the night before and I had not touched it since. But the musical director of the Dreams of old Shanghai immediately plugged in my guitar and got a mic stand for me – remember, they did not even know that I sang and played at the same time, let alone how good or bad I might be! – and I got the guitar tuned and lept right into “What’s Up!” I then did “Father and Son.”

I think I left it at the two songs, but it was clear that it went over wonderfully. The musical director played a percussion machine, the crowd clapped and sang along, and at the end, one or two of the beautiful Chinese singers who I liked to imagine had been looking at me came up on stage and offered me red roses.

So I go back to my seat and quickly, I get a signal from one of the European women. So I join them, and it turns out, of all things, to be a table full of French expats working in Shanghai. So we drink and talk and the Chinese stage show goes on. But then the Frenchwomen request of the management that I return to the stage and do more songs.

Management accepts, and I go up and do “Wicked Game,” then “Mad World,” and they request an encore, so I decide finally to do one of my own songs, and I do, “Borderline.” This time during the singing the management brings up some massive flower in a tall pot and vase contraption, and then I am joined by one of the singers who brings me a rose and dances beside me as I play. The a couple of the other show girls comes up and give me roses.

I don’t want to overstay my welcome, so I get off the stage, go back to the table, and the restaurant manager comes over and tells me he is offering me the food and drinks I had that night, and would I like a glass of red wine….

They then invited me back to play again tonight!

Now who would have thought, who ever would have thought that this posh, cool, and very traditional Chinese place would be so “arms open” to a complete stranger with a guitar to take time on its stage and perform. And then actually encourage more of it?!!? Absolutely wonderful. It was just the kind of experience I crave in the musical adventure, the kind that changes my ideas and preconceptions about a people, a city, a country. To say nothing of what I can do with my own music and where it can take me, and I must never give up hope about seeing fun opportunities arise.

This is clearly a very open and wonderful restaurant. Check out the videos for yourself, and try to imagine me on that stage. Could be difficult! It was so dreamlike and wild and unimaginable that I had that moment wondering if I had, in fact, once dreamed about alighting in an unknown world and being invited on stage and feted like a star. I do remember such a dream about suddenly finding myself playing like Jimi Hendrix, but I am certain that one will never come true….

Singing on the Montreal Metro

June 12, 2011

Last night I could not find a place to play in Montreal, since Saturday night no bars really need open mics. But in any case, I had an invitation to join a Canadian F1 fan I met at the Turkish Grand Prix two years ago. He is from Quebec, in fact, and I had met him in Istanbul on the shuttle bus between the circuit and the city.

I did not know at the time he was in the Canadian military and on a mission in Afghanistan. So last night he invited me out with a bunch of his buddies and fellow soldiers who did time in Afghanistan with him. We ate in a Japanese restaurant slightly outside the center of town on the metro. It was a great meal, and the area, at the Cadillac metro stop, was one where I would never have ended up otherwise.

I took my guitar with me as I always do, just in case. So on the way back into town I pulled it out on the Metro and sang three songs: Crazy Love, What’s Up and Mad World. And all the guys sang along and we received a lot of looks from the fellow Metro passengers.

It was a high moment, and culminated in a visit to a nightclub at the top of one of the tallest buildings in Montreal. Very, very cool! No videos, though.

Andy Flop Poppy Plays My Seagull at the SENYAP Hub and Other Musical Adventures in Kuala Lumpur

April 11, 2011



I reported a few days ago that my Seagull guitar broke. That IS a true story. But I have been able to press the broken pieces of the wood back together and the guitar is playing on and continuing its adventures, and I have decided that I will keep it going until it warps, collapses or otherwise ceases to produce the sound I love to hear from it. And thank goodness I’m still carrying the battle scarred girl around with me. I would not have wanted to miss last night’s adventure for anything in the world.

I had already considered this trip to Kuala Lumpur a musical success after I played at Laila’s bar on Wednesday, at the Frontera restaurant on Saturday – read about that below – and also received an invitation to play tonight at the Backyard Pub and Grill. But my friend Emily Brown, the woman who runs the All-Nations U-Bar open mic in Australia, when she saw I was in Kuala Lumpur decided to ask a Malaysian musician she knows in Melbourne if he knew of places for me to play.

He suggested Doppelganger open mic, which I know about but which has nothing while I’m here. And he also suggested a thing called SENYAP. I sent an email to the SENYAP address asking if there were any events for me to play at and I received a response yesterday, saying I could come around and play that night – or Tuesday, but that Sunday would be best.

I had a huge day at the office – read, race track – and I was late in getting away, late in returning to my hotel, and then late in arriving at the so-called “Hub” where SENYAP put on its musical and other artistic events. It was located in Shah Alam, out in a suburb, in a place called “Extreme Park,” which in fact was a skateboard and other extreme sports meeting place. The Hub was like a mix between a cafe, bar, pub and musical theater, with a fabulous stage, spotlights, good quality sound system, and a lot of people sitting at chairs drinking non-alcoholic local beer-like drink – flavored peach, pomegranate, raspberry, etc. – at oil barrels for tables. The walls were black and covered with sayings and signatures and autographs written in chalk. Cool? All part of the cool concept of SENYAP (which means “silence” in Malay).

“We’re an underground movement,” I was told by Atraz Ismail, the genial and charismatic organizer of SENYAP and owner of the locale, when I asked him what kind of place I had come to.

Indeed, it took me a while, but I eventually caught on. SENYAP is a DIY group that exists to promote grassroots arts in Malaysia, mostly music, but also other arts. This particular “Hub” has only been open for a week, but the concept has existed for a couple of years, and in various forms.

The group takes in musicians and gives them a venue and helps them develop and advertise and gig and grow. Very cool indeed. And what was, on top of that, so much cooler for me personally was not only that I was allowed to play in this venue and did a nice half hour gig of my own and cover songs that were pretty much all warmly received. It was also the quality of the other musicians present, and the young bands who dropped by to take in the sounds and speak to Atraz. Among them were a band called The Tick, which has grown up through SENYAP and has a CD, and a Singaporean musician named Tengku Adil.

Unfortunately I only just barely heard Adil, as he was playing just as I arrived and I had to run out immediately to grab a Burger King next door since I had not yet eaten, and it was nearly 10 PM. But Adil gave me his CD and I listened to it later on a car CD player and it sounded nice.

The truly cool thing, though, was the presence of the singer who I did hear when I came back to pig out on my Burger King. This was Andy, of the band Flop Poppy. As I listened to his set – just him on the guitar and vocals – I could hear instantly that this man had his own style and presence. I could also hear and incredible audience participation in his songs, with applause coming as certain songs were introduced, and the audience knowing all the lyrics.

As I ate the burger and videoed the man I thought, this man must be known here. They know all his songs, and he has this assured presence and sound. I would learn that indeed, Andy, the main man behind Flop Poppy, is a local rock star. The band was a trailblazing band in the Malaysian indie music scene in the ’90s and early 2000s, and has, in fact, sold millions of records.

Andy is a friend and supporter of Atraz and his SENYAP movement, and he said that after his years of performing at the top, he has recently returned a lot to his roots, playing in smaller venues – as well as continuing in the big ones – and trying to be as close to the people as possible.

So here we get to the really nice part. In addition to interviewing all these people for my open mic film, I again found myself in a situation as I have so often where the musicians are intrigued by my guitar. Andy just had to try it out. So I gave it to him as we sat at one of those oil drums and he played and sang a song. As I went off to interview Atraz, Andy got back on the stage again and played for another 10 or 15 minutes with my guitar.

Then Adil took the guitar and played it too.

Yes, a few days ago I reported that I had broken the Seagull, and that is true. It is broken. But the splinters are holding together, and the guitar seems to sound about the same as before. So I will get it looked at by a doctor (luthier) and hope to give it a new lease on life. This is the guitar that has been played around the world by so many different musicians, including many famous ones, that I cannot bear the thought of retiring it. I mentioned this to Andy and he said, “You should make a video about ‘all the people who have played my guitar’.” Hey, that’s what SENYAP is all about, a creative melting pot.

The night before I played at the Frontera Tex Mex restaurant. Did a half hour gig there, as it was not exactly an open mic. There too I met some very interesting people – and the Bollands were also there – and spoke in front of the camera to the Malaysia group, Sue & Her Boys – Chapter 2. Sue is a teacher and her boys are her students. They’re studying media, but they do the music for fun. A little over a year ago, they started an open mic themselves mainly for the students, but it has grown into an international affair as well, with bands from all over.

Clearly the Malaysian music scene is vibrant and growing. Gotta get ready now for my gig at the Backyard tonight.

Swinging Times at the Backyard Pub & Grill in Kuala Lumpur

April 9, 2011

Backyard Pub & Grill Kuala Lumpur

Backyard Pub & Grill Kuala Lumpur

Doing my open mic on Wednesday at Laila’s bar, Juliet, the owner, introduced me to Edmund Anthony, who, she said, runs the music show at the Backyard Pub & Grill in Kuala Lumpur.

“It’s like the top music venue in KL,” she said.

That was about all it took for me to decide I had to check out the Backyard. Well, that and the fact that Edmund seemed like a very cool guy and our tastes in music jibed.

So I took a cab to the Backyard last night and found the place already jam packed more than an hour before the band was due to go up. Fridays it is always a madhouse, I learned. So I sat down out on the terrace and had a beer and then a meal, discussing the Malaysian music scene with Edmund and two of the musicians of the band that would play last night.

The band was Hydra Band, and it is one of the top cover bands in Malaysia. I gabbed with the friendly and outgoing lead guitar player, G-Beng, and the lead vocalist, Lan, who also plays rhythm acoustic. They play every Friday in the Backyard, and I know that if I lived in KL I would show up here more than just every Friday.

There is music every night of the week at the Backyard, and Edmund explained that it starts off with solo artists, then duos, then trios, then full-piece bands as the week progresses. The pub, which has existed for 21 years, has hosted many of the top musicians and bands in the country.

We talked a lot about how some venues in certain locations just manage to succeed, while others can’t attract anyone. The Backyard is curious is that it is located in a fine residential area outside the center of the city with no nearby public transport lines. It is located in what journalists like to describe as a “leafy neighborhood.”

But people go. Do they ever go. The Backyard not only has a fabulous stage and cool wooden wall interior, pool tables and good food – the Mutton Fried Rice that I ate on the recommendation of Edmund and G-Beng was fabulous – but it has interesting music and a true pub-like feel to it. And it is apparently a place where people like to be seen. That, in any case, was the vibe I picked up; but at the same time it was very comfortable and unpretentious – even a little raucous. (Although Friday is apparently the craziest day.)

Hydra was a very together band, G-Beng played a mean lead and Lan had a good, strong voice. The others sang well too. And what I noticed about this particular cover band was that they had their own way of doing the cover songs. It wasn’t just a carbon copy of the original as we might hear it covered by cover bands anywhere else in the world or by the original group….

Had I not done Laila’s open mic, I would probably never have discovered the Backyard. We visiting workers and tourists tend to stick in the city center and visit the usual places and bars. This was just slightly out of the way, but worth it.

Three Sunday Adventures, one common thread

December 13, 2010

I’ll start immediately by saying the common thread between the three musical venues I want to talk about here was Stephen “Danger” Prescott, the Aussie musician of Paris. There may be others, but Stephen is the inimitable one.

My Sunday brunch was a surprise, massive, incredible, jubilant success…there was a salsa lesson and dance going on in the back end of the Mecano at the same time. So that meant that those who REALLY wanted to hear the laid back music of the brunch, got to bunch up in the front of the Mecano bar to listen to me and this week’s guest.

This week’s guest, if you have not guessed (sorry, that’s almost a pun), was Stephen Prescott, of Melbourne and Paris. Who would have thought that one of the audience members would be another Aussie in off the street – but that was good timing, since she knew several of the songs that Stephen sang, and requested more. In fact, Stephen has a vast and varied repertoire, from Aussie songs to the Pogues to Stan Rogers. Because of the salsa dancing and its accompanying music, at Stephen’s suggestion, after he and I did a couple of sets, he suggested we bring the guitar into the room at the front of the Mecano and sit down and just sing a few songs like that, at the table.

That’s when the brunch turned very cosy and informal, and Stephen and I shared the guitar and hammered out songs that are perhaps not always on our repertoires. We even had the visiting Austrian, Wolf, play and sing the Hank Williams song I do, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” And I thank Wolf for doing a vide of me when I sang my song, “Borderline.”

From the Mecano we all went over to the Disquaires, where Ollie Fury was set to play. But his set did not play until near 10 PM, so in the end we stayed only for Yaco and his band’s set.

Then we headed off to the Galway, where Stephen plays MC every Monday night at the open mic. There we listened to the amazing German phenomenon named Yann, who looks, dresses, speaks, acts and sings like an Irishman. Please don’t ask me to explain. But I think I liked best his Richard Thompson song, and the song he did with Stephen – the Stan Rogers one.

A long brunch, in the end, that went on from 2:30 to 12:30. Fun for a Sunday afternoon and night.

Weekend Catch-up: Neimo in Concert, OXIII in Riot Gear, Le Tigre, Mecano Brunch and Cajun Music With Sarah Savoy at an Irish Pub in Paris

November 29, 2010

The weekend was SOOO busy that I have had to do a roundup, instead of a day-to-day report as usual. It started with a chess tournament at my club on Friday night, which it would be far better not to talk about. End of that report.

Saturday I had three things planned: A concert with Neimo, an open mic at an art space known as 0XII and an after show thing at Le Tigre, for the Neimo show. Now listen to this!!:

The concert with Neimo was fabulous. I first heard of Neimo while performing at Earle’s open mic for the second time two years ago. One of the regular performers at the open mic was Bruno Dallesandro, the lead singer from Neimo. Over the next year at Earle’s open mic, there would barely be a week without Bruno showing up with his friends to sing and pay their dues back to Earle and his open mic, since they had developed their act in important ways at Earle’s first bar, Le Shebeen, which had spawned all sorts of French groups.

Saturday night Neimo was the lead act at the cool venue known as La Flèche d’Or, which is a concert hall made out of an old train station. This was the first time I had seen Neimo in action as a complete band, playing their songs, electronically. And man was it cool. Even the fact that they played a vast amount of new material did not put me off – I had listened mostly to their last album, Modern Incidental, released by theShangri-La label in the United States. But the new material was really good, and I don’t know if it was just the location of the concert or seeing them for the first time live, but I felt it came across as much more of a “progressive” kind of rock than the previous stuff. I may be wrong.

In any case, Bruno was wonderfully charismatic, a little Bowie-like, including the makeup and furs…. But just take a look at some of the videos I did to see what I mean.

Next up was the 0XIII art space. I mentioned this place before on this blog, maybe even twice. What made me really desperate not to miss it on Saturday night – despite the two Neimo events – was that I learned there would be an open mic on the second floor. So I HAD to get there. I knew of no other open mics on Saturday night, and this one would go on all night. Yes, in fact, it was also announced as the last night of the 0XIII. This, I did not realize before, was because the building was in fact a squat!

Anyway, I was with a fellow Formula One journalist friend, and I told him about the 0XIII and said that I really wanted to show him the place, adding, “I guarantee you will not be let down.” I felt I had to push a little, since he was keen on going to the Tigre after party and then he was going on to another place after that. But he was very amenable to the OXIII, and he had faith in my assurance that he would not be let down.

So we took a cab over to the Rue d’Enghien from the Fleche. The cab driver got a little frustrated when two streets before our destination he found the roads all blocked up. So we got off to walk the rest of the way. We rounded the corner and found the roads blocked because there were cop cars all over the place at the end of the street of the 0XIII.

“Hmm,” I said, “I wonder if they are there for the 0XIII.”

We rounded the next corner and found that indeed, the street was blocked off by the cops and they were there for the OXIII. There were about 200 people of the squat standing out in the street drinking and talking and it sounded like a mob scene, with people bending out from the windows of the art space as well, and talking to people in the street, with loud music, and general mayhem. At least, that would be how the neighbors interpreted it. And how the cops would interpret it.

We continued to approach and I decided to stop and ask some cops what was going on.

“It’s got out of hand,” said one. “Don’t go there.”

“Thanks for telling us,” I said. “Because that is where we had intended to go.”

“Don’t,” he repeated. “In any case, it’s a squat.”

That’s when I learned that fact.

I thought I recognized some friends in the crowd in front so I did approach closer with my journalist friend. We saw it was a madhouse and impossible to get in the front door without a battle, and I said, “Anyway, there’s not going to be any open mic in that place….”

So we decided to leave and go to Le Tigre. As we walked back up the street to leave we found ourselves crossing through several armed and riot police known as CRS, and my friend noted the guns with rubber bullets. They had shields and other various anti-riot gear – including tear gas – and they were coming right at us like as if we were in a battlefield, slow, cautious pace, a march, a readiness for action.

We got through them no problem and went on our way. The next thing I heard was via a few friends on Facebook that the CRS stormed the place, threw teargas, and generally broke up the group in a rather violent manner. I checked the Internet and found that the Parisien newspaper had reported that the cops had been forced to use violence because the crowd had got violent and begun to throw things at them. The article also said that 10 people had been arrested. The raid had begun around 1:30 AM, and I think the place was cleared out by 3.

I doubted the violence by the crowd, but I later also heard that one cop started getting violent with a young woman and so some people in the crowd attacked him. There may also have been some beer cans thrown at the cops. Well, that, in any case, is the end of the OXIII on Rue d’Enghien. Too bad. I really wanted to play in that open mic, and it was a cool place. On the other hand, my promise to my friend that he would not be let down by going to the place was indeed honored….

So we went off to the Tigre and spend a couple of hours there, and it was all very cool and controlled….

On Sunday, it was time for my brunch, and at least one of my friends who had said she would see me and play some music on Sunday did not show up. As I knew that she had also intended to go to the OXIII the night before, I got worried. But it turned out to be only a sore throat. The afternoon was nice and relaxing at the Mecano for my brunch, and I had my friend James Cordoba Jr. from Colombia play a few songs. That made for a very nice change to the usual stuff – not that there really is a fixed theme on my brunch….except for fun and good music….

Oh, yeah, and finally, just to give a complete different turn to the musical weekend, I went on Sunday night after the brunch to attend a set by Sarah Savoy and the Francadians at the Corcoran pub on blvd de Clichy. This American woman from Louisiana and her at least half-American band play the coolest Cajun music you can imagine, and they live in France. I was presented to them by one of my regular listeners at the Mecano brunch. It was a real eye-opener of the kind of musical diversity Paris has to offer – thanks to Irish pubs and expats….

Off Track, on Track With the Between the Seasons Waltz

November 22, 2010

That is a very convoluted “headline” just to say that after a full week or more of silence I have returned back on track with my blog. I don’t think I have had too many such silences, but basically it comes down to the Formula One season having ended, and me having a short little illness without consequences to coincide with that end.

Readers of this blog will have noted that I spent the previous nine months traveling the world and playing in open mics and jams and busking all over the place in some 15 or so countries and most of the continents. It was my second year doing that, and with a little luck, I will continue again next year. For the moment, I have entered into what is known as the winter season, or the off-season, in Formula One, where journalists like me tend to tend to other projects and to take holidays and prepare for the coming season.

I will mostly be sticking around Paris, playing gigs (don’t miss the Texas in Paris organized Thanksgiving evening I’m playing at, at the Disquaires on Thursday), open mics and jams. And at the moment I plan a weekly brunch musical afternoon show at the Mecano Bar in Paris, every Sunday. For the past couple of months I’ve been hosting this every Sunday that I have been in town and not writing about the Formula One races. I play two or three sets of my music and cover songs, and I invite guests to play a set too. The guests are my friends and acquaintances in the musical world that I have met, mostly in Paris. The brunch starts at 3 PM and usually ends at 6 PM, although on one particularly lively Sunday with David Broad on guitar and vocals and Joe Cady on fiddle, we stayed until 7 PM.

Yesterday I started up the brunch again and had Calvin McEnron and Rym playing a set each. It was a cold, rainy day in Paris, and I can’t think of any better place to be if you like brunch (it’s good food), music and relaxation. So check it out!!

A Last Great Night in Seoul, at Tony’s Aussie Bar

October 26, 2010

When I first looked in through the dark and gloomy window of the closed Tony’s Aussie Bar in the Itaewon district of Seoul last night my heart dropped down a few beats. It looked really small and dark, and it was at the top of a dreary hill in a great neighborhood – which lay just a minute’s walk down the hill, and not up here at this location. Add to that the sudden freezing weather, and I thought, “Oh man, I’ve got friends who said they would be coming tonight to hear me play at Tony’s and what the hell am I getting them into?”

Brad playing with Tony on drums at Tony's Aussie Bar (Photo: Simon Arron)

Brad playing with Tony on drums at Tony's Aussie Bar (Photo: Simon Arron)

The only thing that gave me hope was the sight of a drum set in the corner, with a microphone stand perched high above the drums. Yes, Monday was advertised as being open mic night at Tony’s Aussie Bar, and clearly there was a mic – and there a drum set that indicated music was really part of the deal.

But I still had visions of having my friends show up – a couple of F1 journalists, and from another part of Seoul, Suki and her friend, as well as possibly a journalist from the Korea Times – and say, “Gee, thanks for dragging us all out here…for nothing, Brad.”

Another thing I started worrying about was, “Where do I eat?” I had looked at the menu for Tony’s on the Internet and thought it looked passable. But seeing the place from the outside, I thought, no. It seems to seat no more than 20 people, I thought, and the menu looks…less than acceptable. Worse, the whole Itaewon area was full of Italian restaurants, a French restaurant, bakeries, pubs, Korean and other restaurants, a real delight for the palate. And I’d eat at Tony’s?

Itaewon, was, on the other hand, a real contrast to the area Suki took me to on my first day in Seoul last week. There in that university area I saw barely a single foreign face. Here, I seemed to see barely a single Korean face. (Suki would later tell me her friend was a little worried about coming to Itaewon since it was reputed to have so many foreigners!)

In the end, I opted to eat at Tony’s. I had so many people potentially showing up, that I thought it would not be good form to show up last after gorging myself on some Italian meal and wine down the road. Thank goodness I made this decision! Thank goodness I chose Tony’s! The world changed when the lights went on and the bar opened, and above all, Tony and his gang showed up for the open mic.

When I arrived there was only one person present, an American expat woman who acts as an editor and writer in a local expat magazine about life in Seoul. I thought the place would be empty to the end. Wrong.

I ordered my meal. Mostly hamburgers, fish, and other publike fare, I went for the so called lamb steak with French fries. It said it was pure Australian lamb, so I thought that maybe with a name like Aussie bar, it might be true. It was. And when Tony arrived, he told me that he prepared all the food in the place, and that it was all authentic stuff. The lamb turned out to be fabulous, and was in fact part of the shoulder of lamb.

“We have a corral out back and I supervise the chopping up of the meat,” Tony said, joking. Tony, by the way, is from Sydney, and he has run his bar for about 4 and a half years, and lived in Korea for nine years.

He had a pea soup with a kind of pie or dumpling in it that the woman ordered. And with my meat I was served mint sauce in a bottle, which Tony said he made as well.

I finished with an apple pie and ice cream. The presentation of this was a complete, circular, apple pie, but miniature – a single portion. Good ice cream too.

And one of my favourite parts of the meal was the best bottle of wine I had since arriving in Korea nearly a week before. A Hardy’s Shiraz of 2008, bought for 33,000 won.

In short, I was in culinary bliss… ok, not quite – the meat was a little too cooked – but I did not regret this choice at all! I thought of how horrible it would have been to miss it, in fact.

It was nearing 9:30 when I pulled out my guitar to tune it, and the bar began to fill up with musicians and spectators, including my F1 journalist friends, and before them Suki and her friend.

The open mic evening at Tony’s Aussie Bar turned out to be a cross between an open mic and a jam session. Tony manned the drums throughout, and a friend of his, Freddie, played a very cool six-string bass. That was a nice instrument to have since it provided a replacement for lead guitar occasionally too.

Tony wears a baseball cap, has long hair in a ponytail, and a beard. He likes to make quips throughout the evening, and as the open mic began the atmosphere had developed from a slightly cold thing when I first entered the black interior with the painting of the ocean as backdrop to the playing area, into a warm room of music and joy.

First up was a guy of 50 years old – he told us his age at one point through some kind of a story he wanted us to hear in introduction to a song – who looked like he was some kind of business executive who played music on the side. (Hmm, I’m thinking of that song in the French musical, Starmania, “Le Blues du Businessman” – “j’aurais voulu etre un artiste……”

This man played Tony’s cream-colored Stratocaster that Tony said he dug up somewhere in two or three pieces and had repaired. All four of this man’s songs sounded to me as if they had been minted in the style and influence of the Talking Heads.

It was a nice warm up, and got everyone into the swing of things. Tony offered that I go up next. So I started out by playing my usual “Crazy Love,” in order to warm up my voice, my guitar playing, and the group effort. Then I did my new song, “Borderline,” the first time I have ever played it in a group situation like that – aside from playing with the kids out in the street in Mokpo, but that was just another rhythm guitar, not a bass and drums. In any case, it went well. I felt Tony’s drums really adding a dimension, and the song is very rhythmic and pretty fast.

Next I did, “Since You Left Me,” another of my songs, and also pretty strong rhythmically. Here at the beginning because I could barely hear my guitar or voice, I also made a little mess of the chords and rhythm at first. But I eventually got it all together.

Since the first guy had played four songs, I thought I should just do four. So I finished with Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son.” I messed up the transition after each chorus, since there’s a bit of a rhythmic change with that fingerpicking stuff, and I even made a huge stop all together, but in the end, it worked out fine too.

Soon Tony was joined on a bongo drum by Josh, who was born in Dallas, but lived in Korea most of his life, from what I could figure. He looked like the lead singer for REM and had a wicked and warped sense of humor.

The next singer, guitar player was a Canadian musician named Yvon Malenfant. That name may sound French, but Yvon comes from Moncton, New Brunswick. His guitar was custom built for him, and he said the design was a cross between two Martins. I tried it out after the show and it was very nice, indeed.

I most enjoyed his song called “Cry.” His voice sounded very Neil Young on that, and his guitar playing was very agreeable. Again, these guys had their act together. Yvon is another regular at Tony’s Aussie Bar, so they had played together frequently. Yvon teaches English and a couple of other things – including counselling – at a university in Seoul, and he is married to a Korean jazz pianist.

That was the end of it. They played several songs, and with “Cry,” Tony said he wanted to dedicate that song to a friend, a woman, who had just committed suicide the week before. It was a woman who frequently showed up at the bar. It was a touching tribute, but I kept thinking to myself, evenings like that are examples, or reasons, why it is important to hold on, go the distance, and not back down.

P.S. On my last night in Mokpo I again met with my friends in the street of the Roses and we busked for a couple of hours, earned a lot of money this time as we had grown used to playing together and had a few songs down pat and we had a fabulous last night.

P.P.S. At the airport I saw more evidence this was a music-loving country with a space set aside for Korean culture and music. I made a little video of the beautiful and great musician playing her harp-like instrument, below.

Busking With Won Jin, Ye Eum, Seo Hyun and MJ in the Street of the Roses in Mokpo, Korea

October 23, 2010

I think I found out last night why all the music bars have been empty in the new downtown area of Mokpo: The entire population of the city and all its visitors have been congregating down at the waterfront in a music and fun festival surrounding the Formula One race. I made a quick visit to see if there would be any chance of finding a microphone or stage for MY music, and quickly realized it was not possible.

So I headed back to the downtown area – the new downtown as opposed to the old downtown – and made my way to Rose Street, also known as “The Street of the Roses,” where I reported finding some music places yesterday. It was getting late and I’d had Korean barbecues for the last two nights, so I opted for pizza at the “11 A.M. Coffee Shop,” which is just below Moe’s Bar and Grill.

After I ordered the pizza I asked my waiter if he knew of any places I could go and sing and play my guitar and my music. I decided to cash in on his friendliness and his excellent English.

“Oh, just out there,” he said, pointing to the square on the pedestrians-only Street of the Roses that faced the coffee shop. “These guys go out and play there every night at 10 PM. You could go out and join them.”

I was slightly skeptical, and I could not quite believe that some guys would show up at precisely 10 PM to play in the square.

But as I sat down at 10 PM and began reading my MOJO magazine – still stuck in the August issue, though I have the November one too – as I waited for the pizza to cook, the waiter came up to me and said, “Come out here for a second.”

He led me out onto the terrace and pointed out two or three guys sitting on a bench and playing guitars and singing. They had just arrived.

“Great,” I said.

“They play pop music,” said the waiter.

“So do I,” I said.

“Oh, good, I’m really excited to hear you!” said the waiter, and that seemed to seal it for me.

Not to mention that I knew I had an open mic lined up for Monday in Seoul, so I did not want to take the risk of seeing all my time in Mokpo disappear without a little musical interlude of some kind. For the moment I had only managed a few songs each night in my hotel room.

So I ate my pizza, then ordered a cup of ice cream, then went out to the square. A small audience of mostly young women had gathered around the boys on the guitars. There were two guys who played guitar, and another guy who added some vocals and another who mostly watched, but occasionally drummed on the guitar case.

As soon as I entered the square one or two of the guys motioned me over to play, as they saw my guitar on my back. I nodded, took a concrete post as a seat and finished my ice cream while I listened to them.

Ice cream finished, I whipped out my guitar and began playing what would turn into an hour and a half of jamming, singing along, playing together, with Won Jin, Ye Eum, Seo Hyun and MJ. They all looked in their late teens to early 20s. They played some Korean songs, bust mostly the pop standards we hear all over the world, like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” and all the rest. I played some Cat Stevens, Van Morrison, Dylan, Beatles, Lennon, and even a couple of my songs too, and they played along. We exchanged rhythm, lead, harmony and other vocal roles, and basically had a great time.

They all want me to return tonight. “Every night, here, after 10 PM,” said Won Jin, who seemed like the most dominant of them all – and the one I record mostly on the guitar and vocals on this page.

So I may well return there for another jam tonight. After I played last night I returned to Moe’s for a beer, and there I met an American expat English teacher woman from Florida, named Kelly, who told me that she saw these guys all the time. If they are indeed the same ones, she said they are actually professional musicians who play in bars in the old downtown area regularly. But they like coming to the Street of the Roses to play in that square at the end of the night.

I did too. Again, it built up the human dimension of my visit to this country I had huge misgivings about visiting before I came here – stories of a lousy rural area where the race takes place, a long horrible ride down from Seoul, inhospitable this and that – and which I actually now find to be one of my favorite trips this year….

Brunchtime Music at the Mecano Bar in Paris

October 4, 2010

mecano bar paris

mecano bar paris

Earle Holmes invited me to do the first of a new series of Sunday afternoon musical brunches that he thinks he would like to do at the Mecano Bar in Paris where he used to hold his open mic. So I went yesterday early afternoon, ate a fabulous brunch of scrambled eggs, sausage, French toast, cheese covered walnut bread, potatoes, salad and probably something else, and then I got up and played a couple of sets.

I started playing at 3 PM, and did a first set of probably 45 minutes, and then I did another set at around 5, I think. My friend Rafa Ellan came to listen to me, but I wanted other people to hear him too, because he has a very cool voice and writes some nice songs. He looks and sounds like the young Bob Dylan.

It was a fabulous atmosphere on a nice Sunday in Paris, with the front window doors of the bar open to the street, and passersby dropping in to listen to the music. I brought along my SE Electronics tube mic so I felt the set up looked little vintage, but above all the sound was great. I ran through less than half my songs, my own and cover songs, and was delighted to have a lot left over for next week, when Earle has invited me (and Rafa), to repeat the experience.

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