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First Night in Shanghai: Crimpings and Closings

April 11, 2013

Unfortunately, my first night in Shanghai last night was all about having my style crimped and finding two of my former open mic haunts either closed or no longer offering an open mic.

On the style side, I’m talking about the difficulting of accessing Facebook and a blog via the Internet here in China. It’s not really supposed to happen at all, and at the moment my only solution has meant that it happens very, very slowly. There may quite possibly be a long delay before my videos of open mics make it to the blog in the coming days.

But I will continue the open mic adventure, and I will post my latest edition of the Thumbnail Guides to open mics, Shanghai Edition, when the right moment comes.

Last night after a great meal at the very cool Bao Luo restaurant – delving into a menu I had little idea of what I was getting (boiled beef, noodles, beans, unidentifiable whatevers) – I walked on to Oscar’s pub, where I did a great open mic in previous years, to find there was a house musician but no open mic.

No big deal, the real plan was to go to the sublime and hip Not Me bar, where I had discovered the wonderful Chinese-run open mic two years ago – as opposed tothe “Irish Pub solution” of Oscar’s. I went with a fellow Formula One journalist friend in order to introduce him to this cool establishment.

When we got there, we found it was no longer there. It no longer exists. Not Me, is now Not Here. Gone. We popped into a pub next door and I learned that Not Me closed down five or six months ago, but no reason could be given as to why.

Such, in fact, is the open mic adventure: Open mics, and the bars in which they take place, tend to be very quickly moving targets.

In reading over my report on this same day last year, I see there is not much that has changed in my life in China, and that things were already moving in the same direction last year, with Oscar’s having already stopped its open mic. There was no warning on this Not Me closing, though, as you can even hear in my podcast interview of the manager of Not Me last year….

May I have more luck in the coming days….

Jealous Guy With Tom & Jerry

April 18, 2010

Went to Oscar’s again last night and did indeed get to play with Tom & Jerry again, and I did record some of it. But whereas I felt the previous night was a fabulous success and with the music together as it could be, the one song last night that I felt I had down and together with Tom, Jerry and Paul was “Crazy Love,” and by the time I finished it and returned to my Zoom Q3 recording device, I saw that the device was not turned on….

So I continued recording several of the other songs we did together, and the best was “Jealous Guy.” Unfortunately, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I messed up the words, repeating one of the key lines twice. And during the instrumental interlude, I lost my way and there was a moment where I floated about not sure where the thread lay. I’ve decided to put up the video here anyway, just to have a record of me playing with Tom & Jerry, and Paul Meredith in Shanghai.

That mess up is what playing live music is all about. It’s never the same thing. You aim for perfection, you aim for fun and emotion, and you aim for tight timing. But you rarely get anywhere near any of that – at least in a jamming situation like this when you have never played a song together with the other people – but you hope to frequently simply feel good enough to have fun.

A woman named Tia, who owns a nearby bar, had seen me at Bee Dees two nights earlier sing the same song, and she said it was much better when I was alone at Bee Dees, and that I was more relaxed. Too true. I had banked so many hopes into getting a great moment with Tom & Jerry, that I was overly nervous. Still, it’s never as bad as you think, and the video is not that bad.

I also learned another human lesson last night. We all have our preconceived ideas about people and no matter how open we think we are, we still have preconceptions that may only be broken if we open ourselves further, make an effort to understand, learn and open up. In the past few days I have spoken about Tom & Jerry, and said they came from Inner Mongolia. I drummed up this image yesterday of this guy, Jerry, sitting in Inner Mongolia learning bluegrass and country music on his banjo.

On Saturday night at Oscar’s by happenstance, I learned something about Jerry that I had not imagined. It turns out that Oscar’s Pub is a subscriber to the International Herald Tribune newspaper, the paper where I work as a journalist. I had known this from the first day I was there and saw the newspaper. So on Saturday evening I asked for a copy of the IHT in order to take a look at my special report on the Chinese Grand Prix, to see how it all ended up looking on the page in print.

Paul asked me to show him and the band the pages, and I did so. That’s when Jerry, whose last name I learned is Liu, is also a journalist. He works on a cultural magazine. He does mostly page layout and graphics and that sort of editorial work, but he said he also does the occasional story when he finds a subject that interests him. Of course, since it is an arts magazine and it covers all of the arts, he likes to write about music.

The evening ended for me with an interesting meeting with a friend of Paul’s from Hong Kong. This was Kung Chi Shing. He looks like Fu Manchu, but his hair and pointy beard are both very grey. And he is thin and slight. He lives in Hong Kong and he is a musical friend of Paul’s. He is a composer, in fact, and studied music, including a master’s degree in the U.S., mostly in contemporary and symphonic music. He has composed for films, and he is in Shanghai for the Exhibition, which starts next week, as he is handling a musical project for the Exhibition.

He was an intelligent and friendly guy, and he said he has lately been organizing street music events in Hong Kong, which the locals find difficult to accept or comprehend. But he is enjoying it, and said he rarely performs himself, and is much more at home in composition, and not very much at home in pop or rock music.

A wonderful meeting. Tonight, I have been invited by Jerry to go and see his band with Tom and a couple of other musicians playing at the Melting Pot. But I’ve also been recommended to go and play at the open mic at the Blarney Stone and at the jam at Anar. So whatever happens, I think I’ll have a busy night. On the other hand, hanging over the whole thing will be the worry and fret about whether or not I will make it back to Paris tomorrow on my flight, as the cloud from Iceland continues to create havoc in flights around Europe.

Here’s Tom & Jerry and Paul playing a great medley of trad music:

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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