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Melting into the Scene at the Melting Pot in Shanghai

April 17, 2012

Brad Spurgeon at the Melting Pot jam in Shanghai

Brad Spurgeon at the Melting Pot jam in Shanghai

The Melting Pot jam sessions in Shanghai have been among my favorite the last two times I came to this city. I first managed to discover it in 2010 when I was spending an unscheduled extra night in the city thanks to the panic of the Icelandic volcano ash that prevented me from taking my flight out of the city. This year, I had a scheduled stay in the city, but the ash cloud of the unrest in Bahrain sits over me and my colleagues as we wait to travel to that country for our next race. I could not think of a better when than to attend the Melting Pot jam and plug in and play and sing with the new house band.

In fact, the house band seems to have changed each year I have gone. It was in the Melting Pot two years ago that I saw Joe Chou do the weirdest thing with my Seagull guitar, turning it into a sitar… when he was the guy running the show. Then last year it was someone else. This year, it was a very hot bass player from the U.S. named Dnotes. Dnotes played some wicked six-string bass AND sang some classics, more jazz than I found at the House of Jazz & Blues, in fact. And on keyboards last night was the breathtaking playing of Robert Turner.

It also turned out that JJ Davis, my friend Jeff of Bee Dee’s, showed up to play and sing throughout the night. I managed to take a few videos, and I tried desperately today to get them all up, but I managed only to get one of them onto YouTube. I really wanted to put up the video of the Chinese dancers, for instance. But I finally got goosed by Chinese Internet policies, and no matter how hard I tried or what tricks I used, I could only find the wherewithal to get the one short video up.

I also have some photos of me playing there that were taken by one of my F1 journalist colleagues, Simon Arron, whom I thank profusely. I’d have wanted to put more of those up too – but goosed again.

By the way, I was amused to hear Dnotes introduce the dancers as Chinese “Lockers.” He was refering to the trailblazing group of American dancers from the 1970s, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and appearing on the same TV show with in 1976…! (Bang, Bang, You’re Alive!)

I learned today that Dnotes and Robert Turner have some pretty impressive CVs, which explains why I and my F1 colleagues were so impressed – with Simon pointing out that Turner sounded a lot like Billy Preston.

Oh, almost forgot! My two songs – What’s Up! and Mad World – went OK, and I can thank my other colleague, Mark Hughes, for figuring out how to turn on my Roland R-26 and record me playing with the band as part of my year’s effort to record me playing with musicians in each country I visit this year.

Wild Last Night at the Melting Pot in Shanghai – And Joe Chou’s Secret Revealed

April 20, 2010

So I was supposed to be out of Shanghai on Monday, skipping my flight to Paris and catching one to Toronto on Air Canada. I was supposed to arrive there at near midnight and then take the first flight available to Paris from there. That was the plan the volcano forced me into – a plan as wacky as those of the hundreds of thousands of other travelers stuck in Shanghai and around the world.

I ran into a colleague at the airport who had a boarding pass for his flight to Zurich yesterday, that now has him leaving on 2 May! My problem was different: After 45 minutes wait in line at the check-in desk, I was bumped off the flight because my company’s travel agency had not issued the ticket so although the airline saw that I was booked, I was not allowed on the flight.

So I will try again today. But after an initial feeling of desolation, I returned to Shanghai, booked a room at the Hilton, called up Jeff of Bee Dees Music Bar and asked if he knew of anywhere to play on Mondays. He reminded me of what I had already been told by Paul of Oscar’s: Head over to the Melting Pot at 288 Tai Kang Lu and listen to a set by Joe Chou. After Joe’s set is finished, the evening turns into a jam session, and I’d be able to play.

“If you’re footloose,” said Jeff, “you can explore the neighborhood around the Melting Pot. It’s a really hip area with boutiques and restaurants, and you could eat there first since Joe’s set doesn’t start till 10 PM.”

I have to rush now because I have to get out of the hotel and back to the airport. So suffice it to say that I wish I could share every minute of the evening, because that area of Shanghai, full of small alleys all made up into cool boutiques and restaurants, with a lot of the old style buildings and windows and alleys still prevalent, is very, very cool indeed. Galleries, stores, clubs – and the restaurant I ate in was Thai food. First good Asian meal I had since arriving here.

And the Melting Pot, remember, – I think I mentioned this – was the place Tom & Jerry had invited me to listen to their band on Sunday night. I couldn’t make it because I was too late settling travel arrangements and finishing my race duties. But this is a fabulous room and I regret not seeing Tom & Jerry there. It is a large, chic room with a beautiful, comfortable sized stage with decent sound and spotlights, a full drum set and lots of other equipment.

First thing Joe saw me he asked to play with my Seagull S6 guitar. So he started his set with my Seagull, although the night was in fact predominantly electric, very fusion, rock. After he played with my guitar he did his set with his Stratocaster – with a sticker of Hendrix’s “Axis Bold as Love” album cover on it – and with a drummer and bassist, both Chinese.

After he finished, he invited me to do my music and I did a few songs and had someone record some of them with my Zoom Q3. Then Joe played another set, but this time with another member of the audience playing drums. That was Tony Hall, from Boston. Tony later joined Joe to sing a little too, when Joe again used my guitar. Another guest or two would later take to the stage, and I went up a second time and finished off the evening.

My second appearance was thanks to the enthusiasm for Joe Chou of one guest in the club who insisted Joe play again with my guitar. That’s when I learned Joe’s secret about how he got that sitar sound from his Martin at Oscar’s. Suddenly I saw that MY guitar was being set up by Joe in this odd manner. He was putting the two strings, 1st and 2d, together into the same slot up near the tuning pegs so they rattle together against each other. And of course he did an open tuning as well. I’ve never seen this before and don’t know how inventive it is, but it has a wonderful effect.

A very cool thing happened also in that I got to talking with the man who was so enthusiastic about Joe’s music, and it turned out he was a relatively major sponsor of a Formula One team! We’ve agreed to meet at the next race and talk shop. Isn’t it extraordinary how things come together in life when you get out there and live it!

Playing Dylan Where Dylan Was Not Allowed To Play

April 15, 2010

By the time I arrived at my hotel in Shanghai it was already seven at night. By the time I finished a few work chores it was eight. By the time I found the address on the Internet for Oscar’s Pub, it was going on nine PM.

A quick phone call to Oscar’s and I found that I had to be there by nine for the open mic. At least, that’s what I thought. Turned out, that by the time I arrived at Oscar’s I had plenty of time.

In fact, my immediate feeling was that this English pub, full of Chinese, British, Canadians and Americans, was not going to be the best open mic I have attended overseas. And upon my arrival, I thought, here’s another British pub in a foreign land, and the volume of the talk was so loud I was certain no one was there for music. The evening would prove me wrong.

It was in Shanghai at the Blues Room in October 2008 that I had performed at my first open mic in decades, returning to a period of my life in my late teens and early twenties, that I thought I would never see again.

That night in Shanghai so many open mics ago, I would meet an American expat named Emily, and her brother John, and we kept in touch. So when I returned to Shanghai this year I thought I’d ask Emily if she knew of a place to play, if the Blues Room was still happening.

She immediately suggested Oscar’s. The Blues Room, it turned out, closed down. Just like last year’s venue in Malaysia. This time, I would learn, it had to do with a very high rent, and then the economic crisis.

In any case, Oscar’s ensured that I would have a place to play in Shanghai. I may have been half dead from the 20 hours of travel from Paris to Shanghai via Beijing, but I was not going to miss an opportunity to play. So I did all I could to get there in time.

I ate a dinner of fish and chips and during the meal, I noticed a couple of guys starting to set up a microphone and amplifier.

“Hi,” I said, running over to make sure I got a spot.

“Hi, it’s open mic night,” said the westerner of the two. The other looked Chinese, and would prove to be such – a Mongolian Chinese named Tom Pang, who played a Fender mandolin.

“Great, I brought my guitar,” I said.

“Great. We ll play a couple of songs and call you up.”

That was it, my introduction to Paul Meredith from Michigan. Paul has lived in Shanghai for several years, and before that he lived in Hong Kong. Here he teaches music and plays in a band made up primarily of Mongolians. And he started the open mic at Oscar’s three or four years ago, and has run it ever since, on Wednesday evenings.

Paul makes his living out of music in Shanghai, and he is very enthusiastic about the local musicians, about the expats, and about spreading the musical vibe. I was delighted.

My slight disappointment in this being a very expat-like experience was soon changed, for no sooner had I asked Paul about where to find some authentic Chinese experience than he called up his favorite, fetish Chinese guitar player, Joe Chou, and had him come around to play a couple of songs.

Already, however, Paul had this fabulous mandolin player, Tom Pang.

“Tom went to the Berklee School of Music,” Paul told me. It turned out that Tom applied, got accepted and had his tuition covered by Berklee.

This was an amazing coup, I told Tom, and he agreed. His English was passable, but not great. The moments I enjoyed most of his mandolin playing were in between songs when he kept returning to some Irish, Scottish Celtic jigs and reels. Here’s one of Tom between songs (as Brooke prepares to sing):

But he also handles pop and rock leads very well, and Paul told me his band of Mongolian music aces plays mostly bluegrass. What? Stick around.

Sticking on the Chinese theme, I want to say that I was NOT let down by Joe Chou. This guy came in without hardly a word of English and he sat down and whipped out his Martin guitar and started playing it in such a way as to make it sound like a Chinese instrument. Almost like a sitar at some points, as well, and even very much like middle eastern music at other points. And his blues and slide playing was magic. I turned to Brooke, one of the singers of the evening and told her, “Hey, you have guys who play like this in North and South Carolina…”

She was from North Carolina and here teaching English at Disney. But she did a great version of Carolina on my Mind and Summertime.

To finish off with Joe Chou, however, I should say that he ended up trying out my guitar, my Seagull S6, falling in love with it as everyone does all over the world. It stood up to his Martin with no problem at all – just like the day I bought it and compared it to a Martin, preferring the Seagull.

Paul said that he believes Joe is the most important guitar player in Shanghai, or maybe all of China, as he plays this incredible mixture of sounds that combines Chinese music with Western blues and rock. I must agree that his tapping, his slide, his blues, his Chinese music, all drove me made with pleasure. But also a desire to walk out the door and leave my guitar behind perhaps forever.

Chou plays around town and has released a CD. But Paul wants to promote his career and take him to other cities and show him off to the world. I can see why. He’s authentic. Below I have put in a video of him playing a Chinese song on my guitar. I will put up more videos (keep posted here) as soon as my bandwidth increases, because in my hotel it is a BIG drag. Slow as anything. But as with the longer video of his slide playing, this too is amazing:

Paul himself played several cover songs, and he was very pleased to play one for me that he wrote about trying to have Bob Dylan play in China. He said the song was inspired by the fact of Dylan having been refused to be allowed to play here. So the song is all about Shanghai inviting Dylan, even during one of the lines, Paul invites Dylan to play at Oscar’s.

I am punch happy about having been able to play in a place where Bob Dylan could not. My turn behind the mic was in fact the first of the evening’s amateur musicians. When I performed the room was full of people still, and I had the idea that I was going to be the ONLY musician turning up for the open mic.

In fact, it was non stop until midnight or so with local expats playing and joining in with Tom on mandolin, and Paul on guitar. A very large cross section of Americans, Brits and Canadians.

In addition to Brooke, there was another Tom, Tom Mangione, who was a good songwriter, and who had written a story about Joe Chou that I linked to above. He played some humorous songs and others.

There was a woman who was a Janis Joplin soundalike – well, almost – and who was very pleased when I told her that. “You know the fastest way to this woman’s heart,”
she said.

And there was another Canadian who Paul said had a tenor voice like mine. Not sure that’s what I have, but he said we could both hit the high notes.

Oh, yes, almost forgot. I sang Crazy Love, I sang Father and Son, and then Paul joined me playing the mandolin himself on my Just Like a Woman. I then finished off with my song, Since You Left Me.

Altogether it went over very well, even if this was indeed a crowd that loves to talk even during the music. But I could see people listening to me, and I knew it was appreciated. Just as the rest of the evening’s music was appreciated, despite the chatter.

To conclude, it was an all evening nonstop success of an open mic with a beautiful mixture of the local musicians and the expats. And Emily was dead right that this would be a place I’d enjoy. She also suggested a place called Bee Dee’s, and I had that confirmed at Oscar’s when Paul and Janis told me that I should go to Beedee’s on Thursday night, as there was a jam there too.

And that was another great thing about Oscar’s; I managed to map out the rest of the weekend. Following Bee Dee’s, on Sunday night there is a place called Aran’s, and I should also stop into the Blarney Stone, around the corner from Oscar’s, where they like Irish music, surprise, surprise.

There are other possibilities, which I will not go into, but will see how it all plays out. So stay tuned.

Here’s Joe Chou on the slide and singing:

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