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4 Nights in Kuala Lumpur, 3 Performances, Lots of Heat, Humidity and Jet Lag – But One of the Most Interesting Places Musically on Earth

October 2, 2016

Kuala Lumpur Skyline

Kuala Lumpur Skyline

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – I am never let down by my trips to Malaysia, and despite being hit from every which side from the jet lag on this trip so far, and despite very little planning in advance, KL has again proven to be one of my favorite destinations on my worldwide musical journey. I decided to pass up on any idea of a musical joint on Wednesday night, but I then ended up playing in three completely different venues on the following three nights, and hung out at a fourth – one of the most interesting – without playing.
Shaneil and band at Timbre open mic in KL

I have always been amazed at the level of talent of the musicians in this country, and what’s really freaky too is that while I am so used to travelling the world and hearing people for whom English is not their native language singing and composing in English, here you might THINK it is not their native language, but English IS one of the main languages spoken in Malaysia. This comes, no doubt, from something like colonization, but despite the presence of so many other languages – notably Malay – I hear almost exclusively English being spoken in KL, the capital city.
first at Timbre

And that means that when people sing and compose in English here, it is not just in order to try to achieve some illusion of worldwide success – it is to express themselves. So it works. Furthermore, this is a country full of fantastic, velvety singing voices. I have no idea why. But who cares.
second at Timbre

Heading out to Shah Alam for the Lorong BlackBox

My first stop was at the new venue of Atraz Ismail in Shah Alam, which is about 45 minutes drive from downtown. This is a combination of a street food vending operation along with a small back of the room, tastefully decorated dining and music playing area called, “Lorong BlackBox.” Atraz is the man behind that place where I had such an amazing time five years ago, called SENYAP – which means “silence” – and which burned down a few years ago, causing Atraz to forget about such ventures for a while.
third at timbre

Thursday was not an official musical evening at Lorong BlackBox, but I had my guitar with me, so I was invited to sign few songs for Atraz and his cooks and whoever else happened to be there. I ate a magnificent rice meal and played my heart out. I wish him great luck in the future with this place, and its location in a back alley in this interesting conglomeration of restaurants and boutiques – reminiscent somehow of images I’ve seen of New Orleans (I’ve never been there!) – promises some cool stuff, like a kind of music festival Atraz plans for the back alley and is currently seeking permission for.
sixth at timbre

Another Open Mic at the Merdekarya Hang Out Venue

Friday it was off to the open mic night of the venue that I have not missed for several years now, where I attended one of the best open mic nights I have ever attended anywhere, a few years ago. That is Merdekarya, which is also located fairly far outside KL – although only around 20 minutes’ drive this time – and is also located in a funky food stall kind of area, on the floor over a neat Asian semi-outdoor restaurant. They hold an open mic several times a week and you can sign up on the Merdekarya web site for an open mic slot well in advance.
Merdekarya panorama

The open mic this time was not quite the dream it was on that first dream-like evening I spent there, but I enjoyed visiting Merdekarya again, of course, as it has such a feeling of a “scene” surrounding it, and indeed, it DOES have a scene. It’s not only the favorite open mic venue of many young musicians in KL, it is also their favorite hangout. One of those people is Sheneil Devaser, who was there on Friday night and who runs several open mics around KL. He invited me to attend his new Saturday night open mic at Timbre, in the center of KL, despite his list already being full.
trombone at merdekarya

Finally, it was on to the Open Mic at the Timbre

But before I turn to Timbre, I have to mention that I met up with Andy Peterson, who is one of the world’s greatest bass guitar players – in my, and many other peoples’ opinions – at Merdekarya. Andy is Malaysian, but he travels the world playing bass in both the studio and live performances, for a wide variety of musicians and bands, and he has also released his own absolutely fabulous CD of compositions.
second at merdekarya

Andy said he was going off to the Backyard Pub after Merdekarya and asked if I wanted to join him. So I gladly and thankfully agreed, since Backyard is also one of my all-time favorite music destinations in KL. The musical director, Edmund Anthony, has impeccable taste in music, and always has a list of fabulous bands at the venue. Backyard is known as one of the top music venues in the city, and when you hear the level and variety of the music, it’s no surprise. Edmund has lately been staging his own band on Tuesday nights, by the way, and it sounds very original…. We caught up on news, as it had been a few years since I was last there, having spent most of my time in KL attending open mics, rather than listening to other bands – although I did do a set once at the Backyard.

Saturday is was off to Shaneil’s open mic at the Timbre bar and restaurant, which is located in downtown KL, not far from my hotel near the twin towers. It is located on a street that has begun to be a magnet of new bars and restaurants, and Shaneil has started up this open mic that features several musicians playing their singer songwriter stuff before the feature band plays for the rest of the night. Last night, Shaneil’s band also did a nice long set, and that was really rich, and nice to hear a full-fledged rock band with some nice melodies and cool guitar, featuring Shaneil’s strong vocals.

I had a fabulous time singing on that huge stage with a great sound system and a sound man permanently there to adjust the levels. Rich in reverb, I didn’t even need more than a single pint of beer to feel relaxed and safe behind the mic.

A great three nights so rich in experiences that I realize once again how much I like KL and its musicians and its music. Oh yes, and music is so prevalent, I have seen buskers all over, and I even saw some kind of impromptu outdoor music and dance moment just before the open mic at the Timbre – which I made a little video of….

Dancers in the street in KL

PS, I just realized I said nothing about the heat and humidity that I mention in the headline – and little about the jet lag. That just shows that despite this horrendous heat and humidity and jet lag, if you have enough amazing musician moments to distract you, then you don’t notice those things so much….

Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur Polarities, or Bye Bye Empress, Hello Backyard (Part I)

March 23, 2012

On this worldwide open mic adventure I prefer to write about each place I play and discover in a post dedicated to that place. But I have been so active and so busy travelling and working that I have had a bit of a backlog. So today I decided I will write about the last two nights where I played – and I realized that, actually, given that the one on Tuesday was in a classic venue in Melbourne and the one on Wednesday was in a classic venue in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that contrast in itself was significant enough to give the post its own character.

Interview with Anthony Young, musician at the Empress Hotel open mic in Melbourne:

It is pretty representative of how wild and crazy this adventure can get, in fact, so worth writing about both together. My flight from Australia to Malaysia was not set to take off until 3:40 AM Wednesday morning. So I realized that I actually had another evening in which I could do an open mic in Melbourne. And even better, it was the classic open mic at the Empress Hotel, one of the longest lasting and finest open mics in Melbourne.

So I went there, ate a kebab – the messiest but one of the tastiest I have ever had – and watched the evening unfold in this wonderfully atmospheric pub, which I think has nothing to do with a hotel. I had discovered it two years ago, and wrote about it on the blog, but last year I was not in Melbourne on the Tuesday during the Grand Prix weekend, so I could not take part. I missed it.

The Empress is one of the most popular in the city, and it is very well organized – with an early sign-up in which you get to choose your playing slot – and an excellent sound system. You can play three songs, and the pub is laid out in such a way that you can sit at the small round tables and listen to the music, or you can duck out into the outdoor garden terrace and drink and talk a little while keeping an eye and ear on the music. There is also another room off to the side where you can go to talk, and still hear the music.

I recognized one of the acts from two years ago, but most of the people seemed entirely new. One of the very best of the performers came on near the end of the evening, and that was Anthony Young with his bright blue guitar. He played a kind of blues based first song in which the guitar playing and vocals really stacked up to a marvelous marriage of original sound and feeling. His second song was equally as good, both were his compositions.

In seeing him I was inspired suddenly to interview him for my podcast series. I decided that my original idea of interviewing the people who run the open mics should expand into interviewing everyone surrounding the open mic – musicians, spectators, beautiful bartender women…. Why limit it to the same thing all the time? That could get repetitious for the internaut. So I interviewed Anthony, and I’m glad I did – he had some interesting things to say about his music and the Melbourne music scene.

So eager was I to interview him that I ran out into the terrace area in the back and then ran after him at the bar and basically ran all over the place like a man out of control, with the result that when I found myself at the airport straightening out my guitar case for travel, I realized that I had left both my 60 euro guitar tuner and my 32 euro Steve Jobs biography – the great one by Walter Isaacson – in the Empress Hotel on the table where I had sat most of the night.

The biggest pain in that was that I was hugely taken by the Jobs book and only a third the way through. It would all turn out okay in the end, though, as the Jobs tome would have tipped the weight of my cabin luggage over the allowed 7 kilograms and I’d be in trouble. As it was I had to put some of the stuff into my suitcase to get through. THEN I found they were selling the Jobs book on the other side of customs, so I bought a new copy before boarding the flight. And I picked up where I left off.

This post has grown far, far too long, especially for the good of the next venue, which is the Backyard Pub in Kuala Lumpur. The Backyard is one of the top music venues in the city, perhaps THE most interesting of them all. I first played there last year, and so I immediately contacted the man in charge of booking acts there, Edmund Anthony, upon my arrival in Kuala Lumpur.

I had had a lousy night’s sleep on the flight, but nothing would stop me from visiting the Backyard. Edmund had seen me last year at an open mic in KL, and he invited me to do a set at the Backyard. This was a huge honor, given that the Backyard does NOT have an open mic, and that it features some of the best musicians and groups in Malaysia.

So yesterday, Edmund offered me a set and I took him up on it instantly. I managed to have a nap in the afternoon, woke up fully recharged, and I charged off to the Backyard. One of the interesting things about this place I s that it is quite far outside of the central downtown part of the city where most of the music venues exist. And yet people make the pilgrimage to this neighborhood pub to hear the great music and soak up the festive feeling.

Interview with Edmund Anthony, the artistic director of the Backyard Pub in Kuala Lumpur:

There was a good crowd there last night, and I started by having a wonderful noodle meal before performing my set on the splendid stage between about 8:55 and 9:55. After my performance there was a very cool three-piece cover band, called Bongga Bongga, that manages to produce some wonderful versions of all the songs we know, with two equally interesting vocalists, one on bass and the other on lead guitar.

Interview with Albert Sirimal, Malaysian musician, at the Backyard Pub in Kuala Lumpur:

The evening provided me with far too great an opportunity to miss in terms of my podcast project, so I interviewed Edmund and then I interviewed Albert Sirimal, a guitar player and vocalist for the five piece band that plays on Thursday nights. I wanted more of a feel for the Backyard within KL and for the music scene in Malaysia in general, and Albert gave me that.

In all, it was a fabulous night I will not forget, and I look forward to returning at the very latest next year – if the adventure continues – and maybe even this weekend. On the other hand, I seem to have two more gigs line up in the next two nights in KL so….

PS: For some reason of brain drain, in both of my interviews at the Backyard Pub I unrelentingly called the place the Backyard Cafe…. I cannot figure out why!

Brad, Mark Renesh, Alex and the Gang at the Backyard Pub & Grill, Kuala Lumpur

April 12, 2011

I could not have dreamed before coming to Kuala Lumpur last week that I would have had such a musically and personally rich experience in just six days in Malaysia. Retrospectively, the signs were perhaps there: I had lined up in advance a gig and a half-hour slot at an open mic, starting on the first day of arrival. The rest was a matter of serendipity, synchronicity, and pushing the limits.

It turned out that the day I chose to play Laila’s Cafe open mic was also the first day in a year that a friend of one of its organizers decided to drop by to check it out. This was Edmund Anthony, the man who runs the music program at the famous Backyard Pub & Grill in KL. So we met, he liked my singing, and he invited me to check out the Backyard on Friday. That in turn led to an invitation to me to play a solo act there last night, as he has solo performers early in the week, building up to full-fledged bands later on.

So it was that I ended up playing not only Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday (the latter thanks to the Melbourne open mic organizer, Emily Brown’s research on where else I could play in KL, but I also got to play this nice little gig at the KL landmark Backyard Pub & Grill. This was also thanks to the kindness of Mark Renesh, who is the regular Monday night musician at the Backyard. He not only let me play from 9:30 onwards for about 45 minutes, but he later invited me up to play a couple of songs with him – “Stand By Me” and “Unchained Melody.”

Mark Renesh is a very cool dude with a voice that you think you are hallucinating with when you hear it and see him singing and you wonder where the hell it’s coming from. It’s his, all right. But Mark, who has always worked solo, has developed the one-man solo gig into an art of technological proportions I have yet to see beaten. That is, I’ve recently started using a vocal harmonizing device occasionally at my brunch, and Stephen “Danger” Prescott uses one at the Galway open mic in Paris. Other musicians, like Thomas Brun at the Highlander’s open mic, have a lot of looping and fuzz type of gadgets too. But Mark has a lot of stuff he pre-records, including rhythm devices, vocal harmonies, and I think other guitars. The whole is like a one man band, and very impressive.

Moreover, Mark has a fabulous voice that very frequently does an exact rendition of the cover songs he sings. Very unusual.

Another thing that made the even fabulous was that I actually had three of my best friends among Formula One journalists come along to dine with me and listen to my concert. Well, I say “dine,” but it took a couple of them quite a while to find the Backyard, as they ended up driving around KL about three times before finding it. And I was extremely honored to have come around to listen to me as well, one of my favorite former Formula One racing drivers, the local Malaysian boy, Alex Yoong, who is currently head of driver development at Team Lotus. Having the Malaysian come and hear me play on his home turf was sensational. Alex is also doing television racing commentary here, and still doing a little bit of racing – like GT3 last year. Just realized I first wrote about Alex Yoong way, way back in 1999.

In any case, the evening was fabulous, it was a privilege to play at this KL landmark music joint, and I enjoyed my set thoroughly – playing my usual mix of my own songs and cover songs.

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.

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