Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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

Cultural Evolution from Paris to Shanghai – and an Old Friend Rediscovered

April 13, 2012

I changed my program a little in Paris on Monday, visiting both the Coolin bar open mic and then the Galway Pub open mic, which I have not attended for a long time. Although I had fun things to do and sing in both places, please forgive me if that feels like 500 years ago and that I really want to talk more about Wednesday and Thursday night in Shanghai, China.

Fortunately my flight on Tuesday as in the afternoon, so I could do those two open mics in Paris, get home relatively early, sleep, and then spend the next more than 24 hours traveling to China by way of Dubai. I had about two hours sleep on the flight and immediately checked out upon arrival at my hotel in the Bund area of Shanghai whether or not the open mics I had done on the Wednesday night last year still existed. I figured that although I really wanted to go to bed, I would be far better off forcing myself to stay awake until late and especially, not missing the opportunity of an open mic in China.

I found out that one of them, Oscar’s Pub, no longer runs an open mic. But the other, the open mic at the Not Me bar, was advertised on the bar’s web site as happening that night. So I sped off to the Not Me, had a quick dinner of Shanghai braised porc at the Bao Luo restaurant and then went to Not Me. There was little waiting at the restaurant – a fabulous local icon of a place with huge high ceilings and voluminous dining room – and there was no waiting at the open mic either.

The Not Me is a superb bar that has not only a comfortable bar at the front, a lounge kind of room at the back, and an extensive club room in the back for DJs, parties, dance and other celebrations and inspired by the Cocoon club in Frankfurt.

The open mic has been going for just about a year, and I think I must have come to one of the first open mic evenings thee last year when I performed along with Sista Fay the Swede who I met in Paris and who was passing some time in Shanghai. This open mic is unusual in that the bar is owned and run by Chinese businessmen, and they have instigated the open mic even though they say it is not really part of Chinese culture. There is no MC, but anyone can come and play on a Wednesday night. I immediately played, in fact, I played two sets since it was not exactly overflowing with musicians.

Listen to the interview with one of the Not Me bar partners, Jacky, in my podcast interview, part of this year’s series of podcasts for the blog. Oh, and by the way, strange but when I introduce Jacky on the podcast I call the place the “Be There” bar, which is a Paris venue that I used to go to! You will actually hear me at the end give the place its correct name, “Not Me,” as well as asking Jacky for the meaning of the name….

Brad Spurgeon interviews Jacky, one of the organizers of the open mic at the Not-Me bar in Shanghai:

I was so pressed for time with all that travel and doing open mics that I had no time to write about Monday Wednesday nights’ open mics before I ran off to Bee Dee’s open mic/open jam last night. Bee Dee’s is run by an American, Jeffrey Davis, and is very much an American expat bar that might be located in the U.S. somewhere. But there is some Chinese clientele, and as a magnet for musicians, it also attracts some excellent Chinese musicians.

In fact, last night I almost immediately recognized the extraordinary Joe Chou even before he went up on stage for his set. I had met Joe Chou two years ago when I first started this blog, but I had met him at Oscar’s Pub and then played at his open jam session at the Melting Pot on the Monday. Joe had done some remarkable playing with my guitar, and he seemed to fall in love with it. Last night Joe tried it out again, as well as doing some of his very cool and deeply spaced-out stuff on a stratocaster. I wanted to play with Joe, and he had said we should, but we did not end up doing so.

Bee Dee’s just seemed to get better and better as the night progressed, and if I am still in Shanghai next Tuesday, which I am scheduled to be, then I will return again for more.

From Great to Better: Rockin’ the rockaFellas bar in Kuala Lumpur

March 25, 2012

The third night in Kuala Lumpur became in several ways a reflection of the night before – and just as amazing. I started off with a gig at the Frontera Mexican restaurant in the suburb. I had learned the night before that this was only five minutes or so drive away from rockaFellas, where I had played the night before after wending my way there via the failed gig and then the Backyard pub. So what happens Friday?

Russell Curtis, the owner of, and musician at, rockaFellas bar in Kuala Lumpur talks with Brad Spurgeon:

Remember that on Thursday I was invited to do a gig and the person who invited me called up and said she could not make it? And there was no one present at the gig venue? And I played anyway? Well, bizarrely, on Friday night I found myself a few hours before the gig at the Frontera learning that the guy who booked me could not show up. His excuse was very serious and I thanked him and wished him the best, and prepared myself for the gig – also knowing that if it was a disaster like the night before, I could make my way over to rockaFellas.

So I showed up at the Frontera and found the place bubbling with energy, customers, a kind staff and a nice sound system. And soon I was joined by a few people who had come last year when I played in the open mic at Frontera – which no longer exists. So I played for nearly an hour and a half in two sets, and had a great time. The neat thing about Frontera is that it is located in a shopping mall called Jaya One and so the restaurant opens up into the mall and you can see when people at nearby stores step out in the hall to listen to you singing, or others stop by out front and listen, and you know the whole time you play that you are not ONLY playing for the clients in the restaurant you are also playing to reach people down the halls and in the stores and drag them in to Frontera – where you can just sit and drink beer or other alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks too, if you want.

So I finished the gig and spoke for a while with my friends from last year – some music students and their teacher – and then they offered to take me over to rockaFellas.

There, I found the place moving with the full band of Russell Curtis, the singer, guitar player I mentioned the night before and who had brought me there from the Backyard. Russell had invited me to come around on the Friday to see the full band, and I did not regret it. They were great: Bass, two guitar players sharing lead and rhythm, and the drum player.

Then much to my surprise and delight, after I ate an excellent meal of Cantonese noodles – copious – Russell invited me to play a couple of songs again. So after their next set, I went up and started playing “Mad World” again, at his request. Halfway through the song, the bass player and Russell took to the stage and joined me. This time Russell played drums.

So we just cruised through that one and I headed directly into “Wicked Game,” which I thought would be simple enough for us to make our way through it adequately. The audience – much bigger and more party-minded than the day before – was really responsive, but especially on the next song.

It was like magic, Russell asked me to play “Cat’s in the Cradle,” although I have no idea whether he knew if I knew how to play it. So I proceeded to play the most upbeat version of “Cat’s in the Cradle” I’ve ever played, as I have never done it with a drummer and bass player.

There was only one thing that burned me, and that was how the jam was the most delightful, fun and cool thing I’d done so far on the visit, and because I was not prepared for it, I did not record it on my Roland R-26 as part of my project to record myself playing with the local musicians in every country I visit this year. Fortunately I did get that on a song the night before, but this was a golden opportunity lost.

Still, the purpose of this journey above all is those moments of delight on stage, and so that was more than fulfilled. I would not be the only “other” person joining the stage to jam with Russell and the band, as they called up another drummer and another singer after that.

As you will hear in the podcast interview I did with Russell, he opens his stage into not an “open mic,” but a jam session for friends and like-minded musicians. It’s part of the spirit I love and seek out in this open mic, open jam adventure.

Three Venues in One Night in Kuala Lumpur (includes Backyard Part II)

March 24, 2012

The craziness continues in Kuala Lumpur as my fourth year of musical madness spreads its wings and reaps its harvest. Last night I had a gig to perform that was booked at the last minute the night before for the Doppel Kafe in the Central Market Annexe. Only problem I realized once I got there covered in sweat head to foot from running and pushing things to the limit was that there was no one present. I mean, no spectators, the kafe was empty – except for the two waiters.

Do I care? No, I got on the great looking stage, plugged into the Bose sound column – a fabulous thing – and I played three songs. I got off the stage to have another of the five beers I had ordered upon arrival, and the waiters asked me, please, for an encore! So I played a fourth song. I loved the stage, loved the sound system, and loved the idea that I would singing to an empty room in what was otherwise a very cool looking arts cafe.

Then a phone call came from the person who so kindly booked me at the last minute, and it turned out that not even she could show up! Well, I have my limits. So I asked the waiters to pack up my beers in a bag and I headed as fast as I could over to the Backyard Pub, where I had played the night before.

You see, the original idea was that I would play on the Thursday at the Backyard, but I had already been offered the gig at the Doppel… so I had told Edmund that I had better do the Doppel on Thursday, and he put me up on Wednesday at the Backyard. At the same time, however, he told me that the Thursday night band was hot as hell and I had to see them. So I whipped over there and had a great meal of mutton fried rice.

As I ate I spoke to the bass player, who I had heard warming up, and he had sounded amazing. So we spoke before the band went up. I later learned from someone else, and could confirm through listening to his music, that this bass player, Andy Peterson, is one of the best bass players in Southeast Asia and he is highly sought after all over the region. He often records with Taiwanese bands.

Anyway, I spoke with him, Edmund Anthony, and Albert Sirimal, the singer and guitarist from the same five-piece band. And then who should walk in the door – I had told her I was going to the Backyard – but the woman who had booked me at the Doppel and who could not show up there to hear me there! So we spoke for a while, and she left just before the band played.

The band was fabulous, really jazzy, and cool, and laid back and just awesome. I use that word because I think it is the first time I’ve ever used it on the blog or in any piece of my writing. So it has value, it is not a cliché in this instance.

After the band’s first set, Edmund or Albert introduced me to a guy who had shown up named Russell Curtis. Russell, it turned out, used to sing in this band. He also plays guitar. Now, however, Russell owned his own music venue, a bar called rockafellas. And we got to talking and someone told him about my worldwide meanderings in the musical warp, and Russell said it was too bad I did not go to his bar that night as there was a solo singer guitar player and I could have played there too.

He then learned I had my guitar with me and he immediately – this was near midnight – invited me to go play at rockafellas. So I accepted instantly. So he drove me to rockafellas and I listened to his musician of the night, Allan G., who has a wonderful velvety voice and plays a mean acoustic guitar (a Maton from Australia).

Allan G. then invited me up to the stage and I played three of my songs. Later, Russell got up and played and sang, and he has a great voice and amazing guitar licks, and so I asked him if he would care to play a song with me, he doing lead. He accepted, so we did my song “Memories.” And I recorded it with my new Roland R-26 recorder, because that is the missing link in this year’s adventure, the thing I hinted at earlier but did not want to define: My goal this year is to try to play with and record a local musician in every country I go to. I succeeded in Melbourne, and now I have succeeded here in Kuala Lumpur.


Rockafellas is a very neat venue, by the way, with a real cocktail lounge feel to it, a beautiful little stage, good food, a pool table and a great sound system. Pay it a visit if you’re in the PJ area of KL…..

The evening, once again, was a lesson in “don’t despair,” keep pushing. You will get what you seek. I couldn’t believe it.

Three Short New Year’s Items

January 1, 2012

Again last night no music, just trying to write a new song, memorize a cover song and fix my toilet. Success on the last item! But today being New Year’s Day, I decided to put up a new menu area on this blog, to put up another rejected story in my series of rejected stories and to quote from another blogger’s blog. Heather Munro has a great blog, and her New Year’s message is a brilliant one, so I suggest you go and read it: It is about the two wolves inside us all.

Alain Passard

Alain Passard

My rejected story today follows on a theme from yesterday’s rejected story, but was actually written a few years before that. This story was written in around 1987 or 1988, and it was about Alain Passard’s restaurant called the Arpege. The restaurant was then a one-star establishment, I believe – or about to earn its first star – and it ended up having three stars, the top rating. Ten years ago, Passard decided to take a huge risk and he became the only three star restaurant in Paris – or perhaps anywhere – to focus entirely on vegetables, and drop the meat. He did not lose the stars, so creative is he as a chef. My restaurant review of the Arpege was, of course, rejected, no doubt for the same reasons as the Robuchon story would be a few years later, as I was not an expert and had no food writing gig.

The final new item today is the new page I have put up in the menu area of the blog which is simply a link to The New York Times web site with a search set up to find my stories there, which were written for and published by both the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Since I’ve been celebrating my rejected juvenalia, I thought I should put up a link to the published journalism that has formed the center of my career for the last 20 years….

Rejection: The Best Meal in the World (chez Robuchon)

December 31, 2011

Joel Robuchon

Joel Robuchon

Once again last night I did not go out to play music, but stayed home in order to learn new songs and write new songs. I’m tired of singing the same songs again and again and again at the same places in Paris for the same people. Actually, that is not true. I never tire of singing them. But I am sure that my listeners grow weary of hearing the same songs, so it makes me feel weary of doing them. So I hope to come up with some new ones soon…. In the meantime, here is another of my rejected stories for my rejected stories archive. This one is about the best meal I ever had at a restaurant, that being at Joel Robuchon’s restaurant Jamin, a three-star establishment that closed two years after this meal.

Diversity of Music in Sao Paulo

November 26, 2011

I have to do a very short post tonight as I was too busy at the race track in Interlagos and then went back into town and had a superb evening with a Brazilian musician, which I will write about tomorrow. But all of which meant that I have returned late and have no time to do the full post I intended. Suffice it to say that on my first full evening in Sao Paulo I walked through the streets of Pinheiros and Vila Madalena and went from one music place to another, and heard a HUGE variety of music.

From the solo guitar player singers in empty restaurants doing Brazilian music to the country duets in slightly crazier restaurant bars to the wild clubbing music piped into bars with clients spilling out into the streets to…. Take a breath… the crappy restaurant where I ate my crappy dinner simply because I was attracted to the pretty cool band that played all the rock standards – check out their Rolling Stones song on the video here… To finally returning to the Club CEM that I had visited last year and listening to several very interesting Brazilian traditional bands.

The Club CEM has a wonderful atmosphere of a loft, garage, venue. It is run by the pianist named Paulo, known under the stage name of Kannec. I jammed there last year with an interesting guitar player, but this year I returned anonymously and decided to listen to the evening’s musicians. It was a very, very open mic-like atmosphere but there had been several bands and singers booked in advance in an evening that appeared to be a showcase for local artists. All pretty much traditional acoustic music. But I just loved the vibe.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about the interesting young Brazilian who has been whipping up a whirlwind of talk around his just-released new CD.

Score: Brad Spurgeon, 2 – Metallica, 0

October 29, 2011

bennigan's india

bennigan's india

Has the news of the cancelled Metallica concert in New Delhi spread around the world yet? The fact that the stadium was going to be filled over-capacity and the group refused to play? (That’s the rumour I heard.) That the angry fans started tearing the stage apart and burning Formula One posters and destroying equipment as a result of the cancellation? Well, Metallica may not have been able to play New Delhi – as part of the F1 race sideshow known as F1 Rocks – but yours truly did two concerts in New Delhi, one on Thursday that I already reported on here, and another last night.

I met a bunch of disgruntled Metallica fans on the New Delhi metro and I invited them along to hear me last night at Bennigan’s.

“Brad who?”

I repeated my name.

“Can you give us your card?”

That meant, “Thanks for the offer, we’ll think about it….”

Well, it may not have been a Metallica concert, but we all sure had fun at the open mic at Bennigan’s, in Greater Kailash. Despite the sound of the name, this is NOT a real Irish pub inhabited by nothing but foreigners. The open mic was run by Gautam Lahiri, a musician who plays at Bennigan’s every Friday and runs his evening as an open mic, jam session, inviting friends, acquaintances, his guitar students and anyone else who wants to come to play. We did some on-camera talk for my open mic film, and I found a real kindred spirit.

I played for about 45 minutes or so, maybe more. And I was eventually joined by some of the other musicians present on guitar, vocals and harmonica. We did my song “Memories,” with two people playing harmonicas, including Gautam. It was really touching….

Oh, and it turned out that one of my own acquaintances met at the Formula One race who was supposed to go to Metallica ended up showing up at Bennigan’s to see me instead of going to Metallica. But he left before I arrived, which was just after 10 PM, since I was delayed by writing about the Metallica cancellation – among other things – on my NYT F1 blog.

PS: My internet connection is so slow in my cut-rate hotel that I have not been able to upload the videos I did. I will do that tomorrow….

Playing at the Plastic Factory in Nagoya, and the Sleepers at McDonald’s

October 9, 2011

plastic factory night club in Nagoya, Japan

plastic factory night club in Nagoya, Japan

I discovered the Plastic Factory night club, event space and art gallery through an open mic internet search that revealed it is the local of an open mic on the last Sunday of the month in Nagoya. It was one of three or four open mics that take place once or twice a month on days of the week in which I am in Nagoya, but without being on the precise days when I am here! That is a common hasard of this open mic adventure. But what suddenly became interesting when I visited the Plastic Factory web site was that they announced that last night there would be an open stage for musicians and DJs. So I decided to take my guitar and take the subway two stops from my hotel and join in.

Well, joining in turned out to be not entirely the accurate word. Dominate would be better, as I ended up as the only musician present. Having said that, I played my heart out to a small but cosy, kind and interesting audience, including Heinz Senn, the owner of the Plastic Factory, who comes from German-speaking Switzerland.

Moreoever, after I played Heinz asked me about whether I’d ever recorded my music, and I produced a CD with the four songs on it that I recorded last year. He promptly put it on the turntable and piped it through the massive sound system very loud. I have never heard it in a club situation coming that loud through speakers, and it was very cool and inspiring!

So was the Plastic Factory, this is clearly a hip and comfortable joint, and no wonder it has lasted seven years. I think Heinz is putting on a party next week to mark the seven years of the place’s existence. The web site gives clear instructions on how to find the place, but the small hallway entrance is still difficult to notice from the street. You follow it down a long corridor until you come to the bright yellow/green entrance door, enter the room and you feel like you’re in a cool, private loft. There is a nice stage with a big DJ set up on it, but room also to play music in front of that, with a screen above the stage for projections.

Heiz said his Harmonium Parlour open mic is the biggest and most successful in the city and that they have 80 to 90 spectators and up to 24 musicians every month. And given the vibe of the place, I can believe it. And he may be of European origin, but he said the clientele at the open mic is very much a mixture of Japanese and foreigners. So was last night’s clientele, by the way.

This morning as I stopped in at McDonald’s in Sakae to have my daily dose of pancakes and egg McMuffin – in order to avoid the rice, fish and vegetable “breakfast” at the hotel – I saw once again the same scene I have noticed in this McDonald’s every day: Revellers or workers taking a morning nap on the tables of the restaurant. Is their lifestyle so tightly and overworked that they take every minute available to sleep? Just when I thought the McDonalds was a center for crashing out, a journalist colleague of mine in Formula One, told me that this morning he had seen them sleeping in the 7 Eleven store too….

The video I took this morning shows far fewer than the usual number of sleepers, but it was after 9 AM, and it was a Sunday – there are more on the weekdays. I just had to get a shot of it for the blog….

I also put up a couple of videos of my songs being piped through the sound system at the Plastic Factory, with a segment of “Except Her Heart” and a segment of “Since You Left Me,” which I also sang live.

My Dinner With an African Princess, Zahra Universe, of Virginia, U.S.A.

September 18, 2011

Zahra Universe and Brad Spurgeon in Paris

Zahra Universe and Brad Spurgeon in Paris

Thanks to this blog, and especially my Thumbnail guide to open mics in Paris, I had the most interesting and gratifying evening of music and a meal last night with a beautiful African princess named Zahra Universe. Huh? Yes, and this lady is from Virginia, U.S.A., and whiter than me. And her natural singing voice is located somewhere in the region of Tori Amos, Rickie Lee Jones, Madonna, Adele and Amy…. She is a globetrotting singer songwriter who is at ease in techno dance music as she is alone behind the piano, like last night at the Swan Bar. But let me backtrack a bit….

This blog sometimes goes way beyond my wildest expectations in terms of what it gifts me with. Especially that list of places to play in Paris. So many times I’ve had people come up to me at open mics saying, “Hey, I found this place thanks to your list….” I met Zahra after one of her friends and band members in the U.S. found my list and queried me on where Zahra might play in Paris – ie, where there was an open mic and a piano. So I directed them to a few places, including the Swan Bar. Within a day or two I learned Zahra had just arrived in France and immediately booked at gig at the Swan Bar. That hooked my interest, so I went last night to listen.

I had heard her dance music stuff on Zahra’s web site and was curious to hear what she might sound like alone behind a piano. I was not let down. It was intimate, the voice was real, strong and sweat – as was her presence. Which brings us back to the African princess bit. It turns out that Zahra has done charitable work in Africa, that she was there last year to record a video in Cameroon with the musician Wes Madiko, and that during that visit she was honored by a government official and given the title of princess in Cameroon. Her latest CD, Dancing by the Fire, also features another Cameroon-born French rap star, Soprano. And last night she was at the Swan Bar with a couple of Cameroon friends and business connections, and we all went off and had a dinner in an Italian restaurant next to the Swan Bar.

There I learned Zahra will also be singing the opening song at the 2012 Africa Nations Cup, the biggest international soccer tournament in Africa next January. That’s kind of like the equivalent of the Super Bowl in Africa. What can I say to all that? “Holy shit!” seems the best, most honest, expression.

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