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Doing the ‘Live House’ Thing in Japan, My Gig at Soma in Osaka

October 10, 2012

live house soma osaka

live house soma osaka

Pieces of the puzzle of understanding another country’s music business can take a long time to fall into place, especially when the country is Japan. I have been playing in Japan since my never-ending (I hope) worldwide tour of open mics and open jams began in 2009. It was only last night on my fourth visit to Japan, therefore, that I suddenly discovered one of the mainstay ways bands and pop musicians get gigs and tour the country and develop their thing…. It’s called the “live house,” or in Japanese, “rai-bu.”

But let me back-step a little. It turns out that my previous post and mini gig, at Club Mercury, was also at a live house – but a very small one. When I asked the manager there if he knew any open mics or open jams or places where I could play the following night – last night, Tuesday – he very kindly and enthusiastically told me he would call around and see if he could find something.

So it was that I finally received a tweet and an email from him yesterday and he asked me to meet him at Club Mercury again if I wanted to play somewhere, because he had found a place for me to play, and it would be easier if he took me there. So I headed off to Club Mercury, and we took a cab over to the live house called Soma, in the Shinsaibashi area. This is a very cool, crowded area of small streets and street people and restaurants and bars and clubs near the Namba station.

When we stood outside Soma and he said, “This is it,” I started wondering what kind of place he had taken me to. It looked bloody big, there were posters of bands all over the place, and it really looked professional and hip. I had sudden visions of me making my appearance opening up for some famous Japanese at Osaka’s equivalent of the Bus Palladium in Paris, or hey, why not the Palladium in London? Well, not quite. But anyway….

We entered and I found myself in a hip and colorful cool bar area being introduced to a woman who had been warned of my arrival. I could not understand any of the talk, but she led me to a backstage area and said, basically, “Here’s your dressing room, and the stage is on the other side, there.” She pointed out a wall with a door at the end of the hall, and I heard music and continued to wonder what was going on. But for the sake of adventure, I said to myself, Cool!

She then told me that I was booked to go on a 8:20, for half an hour. Whoa!

I then met up with the manager from the Club Mercury again – whose name I have not put here simply because I have not got a clue of how to pronounce it, even though I tried several times, but it’s sort of like Hajth…. He bought me a beer and he asked if I wanted to go into the auditorium to drink it, during the show.

So we entered the room, where I found a fabulously cool mid-sized live house area with a large stage, great sound system, huge dance floor and tables area and in the very back a control room area with what looked like two or three technicians working the light and sound.

There was a performer on the stage singing to recorded music, and I was now once again thrown into a sense of confusion. It was not, clearly, a karaoke. But what was it? By the time I went up, there were about six spectators plus the sound people, maybe eight or nine people maximum. Some were, I would learn, musicians.

I took to the stage, got the guitar and vocal mic sound checked and then did my half-hour “show.” Later, I met the first singer, she gave me her CD, “Jump!,” and then some other musicians, and I watched the half-hour gig of the musician after me, whom everyone calls Tazz, but whose stage name is Vividamien. She was damned good. Played a nice expressive guitar – which was a neat Ovation, by the way – and also had a very good and expressive singing voice with some original sounding tunes.

Afterwards we all went into the bar area and had some beers and some food – including the local Osaka specialty of takoyaki. We also jammed a little. It was an insanely wonderful evening, and I owed it all to the manager at the Club Mercury, and the open arms of the Soma live house. Because a live house, I learned, is the way that bands find their audiences and get known in Japan. There are no booking agents for small bands because there is virtually no money to be made in it. So instead, there are hundreds, or probably thousands, of these live houses all over the country where bands have access to a staff and great equipment and a stage and a bar. And the band usually is auditioned and has to ensure that a certain number of spectators will come to listen, and buy tickets. That pays for the rental of the room.

I, like most foreign “bands,” did not have to pay for the booking and get people there – that was actually due to the kindness of Hadth – I will get that spelling as soon as I can – who got me the gig, and who in fact invited me to everything throughout the evening. Unbelievable where music is capable of taking a person! This was a real introduction to a whole facet of Japanese musical band culture that I knew nothing about, even after three previous years playing where I could. That said, I had noticed the name “live house” here and there – I just never knew what it was. Now I do….

Oh, and by the way, being on that stage under the constantly changing spotlights and with a sound crew that knows what they are doing, was a real joy – no matter how small the audience might have been….

Playing Club Mercury in Osaka – and a Jam at a Bar

October 9, 2012

Sometimes finding a place to play in a new city one has never been to before requires a little more than just an Internet search or randomly wandering the streets. Last night before I set out to randomly wander the streets of Osaka, where I have never been before and where I found no open mics or jams on my Internet search, I decided to contact a friend of mine whom I know in Paris and who frequently plays in Japan. It turned out that this friend, who calls himself LadiesDi, is actually right now doing his tour of Japan clubs. He was unavailable on Facebook or anywhere else – I still haven’t heard from him! – but I noticed the name on his site of an intriguing looking venue in Osaka where he played last week.

So it was that I decided to set out in search of the Club Mercury and see if it was possible for me to play there. Located near the Hard Rock Cafe, I thought I had that landmark to use as a guiding point in a culture where I find it extremely difficult to navigate. But I am getting better and better after several visits to Japan, and this trip has been my biggest breakthrough so far in terms of understanding signs and streets and other cultural marks.

So to my complete and utter shock and surprise and a sense of pride, I arrived directly at the Club Mercury, making no big errors as I went. At the door I found there was a 20-euro cover charge, but some very nice people who did all they could to understand what I was looking for. I asked them if I could play music there, and they said that there was already another band. They then inquired within and said I should come back later if I wanted to play.

So I went across the street and had a sumptuous pizza with cream sauce instead of tomato sauce, and then I returned to the Club Mercury, and went in to find that the show had ended for the evening, but that the owner manager was aware of my desire to play. He asked me what date I was free, and I told him I was leaving Japan on Wednesday.

“Do you have a guitar now?”

I said I did, and he invited me on the stage to play. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The place had around 25 people there to listen, the stage was sizable and very cool, this kind of bauhausian feel to it, and complete with spotlights, a curtain and a great monitor system. The room was very small, and on the curtain in front of the stage when there was no performance, old movies are projected.

I played a few songs with all spectators listening quietly, and applauding with warm appreciation. I spoke to most of them afterwards, while I ate the noodle soup I had been offered in gratitude and payment for my set. In short, it was all very bloody amazing!!!

I was also told, by the way, that Osaka is full of such neat music venues, hidden, off the main roads, in basements, in places you would never find them if you didn’t know. The Club Mercury has existed for eight years. It has a regular stream of local bands and musicians playing there, and is well worth the visit for the cool atmosphere and people alone.

After I left, I decided to flex my new found navigational muscles and dared myself to walk all the way across town back to my hotel rather than take a subway train. Along the way I met a young band, called The LaQ, sitting in the covered mews thing that traverses the center of town. They gave me their CD, which I have not been able to play yet, as I have no CD player in my hotel or on my computer. I put the CD with that of one of the musicians I met at the Club Mercury, called Side Slow, and I look forward to listening.

As I neared my hotel, I passed a bar and some people within saw that I had a guitar and gestured me to come in and play. There was nothing going on musically, but it looked like a fun group of people in a small, comfortable, corner neighborhood bar. So I went in, played a song and took a beer.

That was the beginning of a long end to the evening playing music myself in the bar, and listening to one of the other people at the bar, a guitarist named Gil, whom I have recorded on video here, which makes up partially for the lack of videos from the Club Mercury, aside from the panoramic. But I truly regret not having heard any of the music from the other musicians at the Club Mercury, and I should never have gone for the pizza – except it was great.

Talk about a great start to two nights in Osaka!

Falling into a Jam in Nagoya – and Loving It

October 7, 2012

I played music on the first two nights in Nagoya, feeling completely satiated and happy and full of a sense of achievement. So I said to myself on my third night, last night, that I would just simply relax, go to a restaurant, take it easy, not look for a place to play and get to bed early. And then all hell broke loose….

I finished the meal and started walking the several kilometers from the center of the city in Sakae out to my hotel in Imaike. I had been eating and drinking a fair amount in recent days and I thought I could use the exercise of a nice long quick walk. It was a great pleasure. I ended up being slightly unsure of my route, though, but decided that for the sake of adventure, I would just keep walking in that direction and see where it led.

It led precisely to the intersection where I knew I had to turn left to get to my hotel. And as I turned left, I suddenly heard the sound of live music coming from a stairwell. I was about three minutes walk from my hotel, and there I saw a sign that said: Jam Session….

I quickly descended the stairs and found the warmest, coolest, ramshackle underground bar I could imagine, and it was brimming full of Japanese people listening to a bunch of Japanese musicians on a cool stage area playing the blues. I asked the woman behind the bar – who approached me – what time the jam went on to, and she indicated 2 AM.

“I’ll be right back!” I said, pointing at the guitars on the wall to indicate I was going to get my own. After all, it was only then just 10 PM.

So I went to my hotel, took out my guitar and sang a song to warm up my voice, and then I ran off again to the bar, which I later learned was called Nanbanya, and has a weekly jam on Saturday nights. Or most Saturday nights.

The first guy I talk to turns out to be the importer for all of Japan of Godin guitars, which is the company that makes my Seagull S6 – although he does not import the Seagulls, only the Godins. The night, I knew immediately, was going to be immense.

It was. I played three times, getting invited twice more after my first time up, and I met several interesting people, saw some amazing musicians – check out the absolutely nuts guitar players, the young Japanese guy with the Hendrix T-shirt, and the Peruvian with the Gibson….

Man, this was a dream night. I never knew anything like this existed in Nagoya, and I happened to stumble upon it next to my hotel after deciding to walk home and making a mistake in navigation. This is proof that everything we want in life lies just around the corner, and sometimes we will just stumble across it – so don’t give up!

Warm Time at R&B Melrose Open Mic in Nagoya, Japan

October 5, 2012

I have rarely been as busy with travel and work as in the last week, and that is why there have been no posts for so long on this blog. I am STILL under pressure. But I did manage to force myself out to do an open mic last night in Nagoya, Japan, where I arrived the day before. And man am I ever glad I did it. It was at the R&B Melrose bar in downtown Nagoya, where they hold an open mic until quite late at night every Thursday. I had an amazingly warm time amongst only Japanese musicians and spectators with little English, but with the universal language of our music, that did not matter.

I got to play on three occasions, and on two of those I got to play with some of the other musicians in the room, who had spontaneously begun playing while I played. One man did harmonica, a woman took to the drums. Later, another guy took to the drums. I got great recordings of me playing with these musicians, with my own particular favorite being on my own song, “Crazy Lady,” on which I had the harmonica player and the drummer woman.

And their music was gentle and occasionally very emotional, as you can see from the videos. A super, super, super cool night, and once again I was able to fulfill my personal objective of playing and recording me playing with local musician in every country I go to this year. I would put up Crazy Lady here but it requires editing out of the other songs I recorded, and again I am under pressure – this time for an interview in my journalist job, followed by a return trip of more than an hour to Nagoya where I am the feature act in another open mic tonight – at the Plastic Factory venue. More on that tomorrow.

PS, almost forgot! Before I went to the R&B Melrose, I dropped off at the San Jose bar to see if a musician I met there three years ago was still the orchestra leader. And there was David and his two women singers, still there after all these years! So I did a video of them, David being from England, the woman being Japanese. Check that out too!

In Tokyo, Ruby Room Surprise with One Bourbon One Beer

October 12, 2011

Last night in Shibuya at the Ruby Room open mic in Tokyo more than made up for all the missed opportunities and frustrations of previous evenings in my open mic searches. It was a multidimensional evening of interest, fun and – today – fatigue. One of the most amazing and amusing things to happen was that it turned out that I was not alone as a person from the Paris open mics to show up at the Ruby Room last night.

A band from Paris that has taken part in many of the open mics that I do in Paris has come to Japan to play gigs and develop music and live an adventure here for three months, and they showed up at the Ruby Room last night. That was the band called One Bourbon One Beer. They are a very cool blues, pop indie kind of band that met at the Pop ‘In open mic in Paris and got together to make their history.

I had played at the Ruby Room two years ago, and some how like a homing pigeon I managed to get off the Shibuya station metro last night and walk straight to the club amidst the bright lights, signs in Japanese, curling sidestreets, large neon movie, store, club and other morass of a city scape. I loved this open mic two years ago because it was a beautiful small room on a small street with a good ambience, neat bar, cool stage and sofas, little tables spotted about, including a separate kind of covered table off to the side. Something about the ambience of the place had reminded me two years ago of the Truskel bar in Paris, and so it was pretty amazing to meet up with One Bourbon One Beer, who it turns out, also were on the same flight as me from Paris to Japan last week!

The other thing that is cool about the Ruby Room is the mixture of Japanese and Westerners. There were Brits, New Zealanders, Americans, everything. And the Japanese. In fact, before One Bourbon One Beer showed up and as I waited on the staircase outside for the doors to open and the sign-up to begin, I struck up a conversation with the leader of what would turn out to be the coolest Japanese band of the evening, a band called D.O.G.S. Koji, the leader, spoke perfect English, thanks to his former girlfriend from Canada.

D.O.G.S., it turned out, are going on a tour of Seattle in about 10 days, and they showed up at the Ruby Room to warm up in front of an audience before they leave for the United States. So I interviewed Koji for my open mic film, and then later interviewed One Bourbon, One Beer. I mean, what a wonderful example of the open mic zeitgeist: This young band from Paris travels to Japan to learn its chops in a different culture, while this young band from Japan – same age basically – travels to the U.S. to learn its chops – actually both bands have a little tour organized – and here they are both showing up at the same open mic in Tokyo….

There were some weird and cool acts last night, but it was quite different to two years ago, when there were a lot more acoustic Japanese bands. Last night I played four songs, and had to use my guitar without its pick-up, thanks to the butcher job done by Guitar Garage in Paris, that worked on repairing the damaged wood – after the guitar was destroyed by Emirates on the way to Singapore – and in working on the wood they destroyed the electronic pick up. (Now they don’t respond to my emails asking desperately if they have an idea how I can fix the pick up myself.) New! Edit this video

But my thing went over well, and I felt in good shape. I thoroughly enjoyed it, got the crowd clapping along – well, no, they just did it – and the evening was immensely wonderful. I just had to forfeit sleep as I travelled today to Seoul, South Korea, from Tokyo….

P.S., it was only two of the three performers from One Bourbon One Beer: Genji Kuno (guitar/vocal) and
Thibault Delacour. The drummer did not come on the trip.

Street Culture in Nagoya

October 7, 2011

When we think of urban life and culture in Japan, we think mostly of Tokyo. At least I do. But I know very little about Japan, even though I have been here several times. I am getting to like it more and more on each visit, though, and part of that is related to learning how to read the culture and where to go to find it. Last night just walking through the streets of Nagoya, in the Sakae area, which is the central downtown part of the city, I nevertheless had a bit of unexpected culture thrown in my face.

Nagoya may be Japan’s third most populated city, but it is somewhat understated, with most of the nightlife happening behind closed doors in basements and upper floors of buildings that look otherwise rather discreet. So I was surprised to suddenly have my attention grabbed by a bunch of people dancing in front of an office building at around 10 PM, using the glass front of the building as a mirror. This was very cool stuff, and so I grabbed a bit of it on video for the blog.

Not far from this spot I heard a fabulous sound of rock music coming from the street, and my first thought was it was either an outdoor concert or a music bar with the doors wide open. Turned out it was a young band busking outside the Sakae subway station. They were really cool. I was running out of battery power on my Zoom HD Q3, though, so only got a bit of it. The guitarist was hot!

Meanwhile, I think I found another open mic place to play, on Saturday evening. But I keep my fingers crossed.

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