SHANGHAI, China – I think the only way to understand the frustration of trying to do a blog once a year for a few days in Shanghai is to come to Shanghai and try it yourself. Let me just say that the Chinese government control of the Internet is quite effective, even if there is such a thing that exists called a VPN, that allows persistent people to fight through the great firewall. I’m not feeling very energetic tonight, so I decided I will keep this post very short.
I just simply wanted to say that I have been in China since Wednesday, and I have not posted partly out of discouragement from the necessary pains trying to do so, and partly because I have not actually attended any open mics so far on this visit. I intend to attend open mics in the next two days, though, hopefully two open mics. And I will duly report on those. Both will be new experiences for me, as I have attended neither of them in the past.
I have been playing LOTS of music in my hotel room, though, as my last couple of weeks or whatever it was in Paris, I did little playing thanks to a new neighbor who hates music, and thanks to my own other occupations. So I have been going absolutely crazy playing in my hotel room with Shanghai lit up 18 floors beneath me.
My only other reason for posting is to mention on this blog a very worthwhile project that needs crowdfunding: My daughter, Emily, is working on an end-of-the-year short film project at her film school, the Ecole de la Cité, and she needs to raise a budget. The budget, it turns out, is a very real need. I spoke with her about where it goes, and if she is learning a lot at the film school, I’m learning a lot through her about what it takes to become a filmmaker – including where the budget goes!!! So go to her crowd fund-raising page and support her film: Yes Yeux Ouverts or what she is calling, Opening the Eyes in English. She has reached nearly 50 percent of her budget so far, and needs to get 100 percent, as you probably know in the principles of crowd fundraising.
SHANGHAI – My worldwide open mic journey began in China in 2008 after the Formula One race in Shanghai, and little did I know that it was a journey that would continue for six more years and cover most of the globe, every continent except Africa (where I once lived and played music in an open mic decades earlier) and Antarctica, and that it would spawn a book, a blog, an album, a documentary film, numerous podcasts, music videos and other multimedia projects.
This year, 2014, I have decided to finish all of the projects and tie them together into a consolidation of multimedia. As part of my personal impetus to gather it all together for myself, but also put it into perspective on this blog, I have decided to create a page for each city I have visited on the journey, tying together samples of the whole multimedia adventure linked to that city.
SHANGHAI – Word-of-mouth got me to the open jam session at the cubby-hole Karma Lounge in Shanghai last night after someone I met at the previous night’s open mic told me about the good Karma jam…. But the moment I entered the bar, I realized that I had already met the owner, jam leader and performer, John, who is known throughout Shanghai by musicians for his reputation of starting jams and open mics all over the city. I had met him last year at the Comptoir jam, which was a high point of my visit last year.
So I had a very good idea of what kind of night I had ahead of me, or thought I did. One thing I did not expect was to hear a voice from the bar call my name also a few moments after I entered the bar. I turned to see a man who looked vaguely familiar, but I was not sure why, and I felt slight worried I was not recognizing an old acquaintance. It turned out to be Tony Tse, who is Hong Kong-based business man in the textiles industry who travels around Asia for his work…and takes part in open mics and jam sessions.
“They often tell me when I get somewhere that you had just preceded me,” he said, noting that people made the connection between us since we both have jobs that take us around the world to do other things, and we take advantage of that to go to an open mic to perform. Another such persona that stands out in my memory is Danny Fonfeder, who is in the schools supplies business in Canada, but take his guitar on his travels around the world to play in open mics. And if I also started up this non-profit blog (I call it that not out of principle, but out of a lack of ideas on how to make money out of it!) as a sideline to the open mic journey, Danny ended up starting a very nifty business of creating and selling guitars, which he calls Blueberry Guitars.
Hmm, so, Tony, now it’s your turn! A line of busking clothing? High-class, protective cloth guitar cases for travelling?
Anyway, the jam at the minuscule Karma Lounge was really interesting both for the amazing quality of the musicians and for the fantastically warm members of the audience. Jammer John is rightfully proud as he is the owner of this venue, and he told me that he is planning another jamming location to add to it soon. It felt as if there was an equal number of expats and Chinese people in the audience, in a truly multicultural experience.
But for open mic musicians, do be warned: The style of this jam is not really one of the solo open mic sort, as you really have to sit in the circle of musicians and play music that everyone can jam along to. It did seem that priority goes to the regulars, and that is no doubt because they are the ones who best “get” the idea of this particular jam, and share regular songs, thus facilitating the free, non-stop flow of music well into the night.
Definitely worth a visit as either a musician or a spectator.
SHANGHAI – Monday night I stopped in to play a few songs at the Tennessee bar open mic in Paris for the first time in a long time. It was back to its old lively self, it seemed to me, with lots of spectators and lots of new musicians. I was delighted to find an audience of people who had never heard my songs, so I could do whatever I wanted without feeling it was already long ago memorized by the spectators…. The same thing happened last night, but in China.
I got up Tuesday morning and spent two days travelling to Shanghai and finding myself all set for a perfect transition into Chinese night time and not jet lag despite the 6-hour time difference to Paris, thanks to not sleeping on the two flights I took, by way of Dubai. But I had to fill in the final hours of the evening by some sort of activity that would keep me awake. So I did an internet search and found an open mic at a place called the Thirsty Seahorse, bar and restaurant.
It turned out that this venue was withing a 20 minutes walk from my hotel, and it was located in the neat former French Concession. So I took the walk, ordered a very Chinese meal of bacon and cheese burger, and took part in the open mic. It is a pretty hip and cool bar run by Chinese people, but the open mic attendees were from the U.S. and Italy, and me. The open mic has only existed for a couple of months, and it is run by Neil, from the U.S. but with a Peruvian background too.
It was a very cool and basic open mic, with a mic and all you can play style of slot…. So there was Burna…or was it Barna!?! from Italy, the very creative Ladd Mercer from Indiana and me. Check out Ladd’s bandcamp site. His voice made me want to ask him to sing that 1980s song, “Boys Don’t Cry,” or whatever it was called, but I never did get around to that.
In any case, it’s a nice new addition to the Shanghai open mic scene. I’ll be back. Last night I was pleased that like at the Tennessee no one had heard my songs, but I’ll happily do without that aspect if I can return again next year….
The first ever open mic that I did after my decades-long break from performing was in Shanghai in a bar called the Blues Room, in October 2008 after the Chinese Grand Prix. There was only one other musician at the open mic, and that was John. Last night, four and a half years later, after I found that the original open mic I intended to go to was running a band instead, I found there was another open mic, at a place called Windows Scoreboard. When I walked in, I found only one other musician present – and playing – and that was John.
It ended up being quite a fun night with lots of people coming to this massive bar to play pool, ping pong and to watch the television and listen to the music. As it turned out, this would not be a massive night for other musicians, and I ended up doing three sets and playing for perhaps an hour and a half in total. As did John.
He told me a lot of his regular musicians had the flu, and I believe it – he was suffering too!
There was a moment last night between my two sets at the Dreams of Old Shanghai restaurant that I had a flash and said, “Did I once have a dream about this sequence happening to me before?” It was one of those deja vu moments that don’t necessarily happen, but you wonder if they did…. Now if that sounds a little confusing, just imagine the situation last night in Shanghai when I ended up on stage in this chic restaurant night club where a large cast of singers and dancers had previously occupied the stage in a long and colorful program of 1930s nostalgia of old Shanghai.
The evening had started quiet enough. After having two nights of playing at open mics in China I opted to have a very quiet night eating noodles, reading in my hotel room and just going to bed early. But regular readers of this blog will know that I generally like musical adventures and I have learned while in far off and exotic countries that I must always be ready for them. I have occasionally gone out thinking there was no place to play and have not taken my guitar with me because of that defeatist way of thinking, only to discover that I find a place where I could have played if I had my guitar with me.
So despite my intention of simply going over to the De Xing Noodle House on Guangdong Lu, eating a big bowl of noodles and returning to my hotel to read, I said, “Hey, take the fucking guitar. You never know what you might run into.” So I took the guitar, found the noodle house, ate the sublime bowl of noodles and then said it was time to return to the hotel. But not quite. No. I needed dessert.
There was nothing on offer at the noodle house, which was closing anyway, since it was now 10 PM. So I set off to find a place selling something sweet. I decided, however, that my route for that would including taking in the street where there are a bunch of musical instrument stores, Jinling Donglu, to see if it was worth a visit next week after the race and before my trip to Bahrain.
So I go to Jinling Donglu, window shop, and continue my search for dessert. Lo and behold, at the end of the street, at No. 229 Jinling E. Road, and before I was about to return in the direction of my hotel, I saw a big sign on the front of a building: Dessert. So I crossed the street and entered the building. Once inside I saw the dessert joints were closed, but I heard what sounded like live music coming from up an escalator. And it sounded like traditional Chinese music, with a woman singer. I was intrigued.
So I took the escalator, went up and found a couple of restaurants, one of which was called, “Dreams of old Shanghai.” It was elaborate, ornate, classy, and I was immediately invited in by the people at the door. I said, “Live music?” Wanting to check it out, and they said I could look. I craned my neck around the entrance and saw this wonderful stage with full lighting, a curtain, and a cabaret revue of Chinese women dancers and a singer. Holy shit, a real Chinese stage revue here. Very cool! The restaurant appeared vaguely retro, posh, and very, very Chinese.
“Come in and eat,” said the guy at the door.
“I already had my meal,” I said.
“No problem, just come in and have a drink!”
Then he noticed my guitar bag and said, “Guitar?” I said yes. “Come in and play?” he asked me. I gestured to the stage. “There?” He said, “Yes, yes, come in and play.”
This I could not quite believe under the context, with this posh cabaret in old style, and here I was a kind of old hippie with a battered guitar…. (And short hair, granted.)
Then the manager showed up and door and did some more persuading and I asked if there was a cover charge, and was told there was not. So I asked if there were desserts. “Yes.”
So I thought, Okay, I’ll go in and watch the show, make videos, have a beer and eat that dessert I wanted. I did not really think the offer to go on stage would materialize.
I watched the show, ate a fabulous cheese cake, with ice cream and blueberry sauce and mango and kiwi chunks, and drank an Asahi beer. This was bloody bliss. And to top it off, I was sure that every one of those beautiful dancers and singers was staring directly at me. A magician dropped by and showed me a couple of tricks, and then after I finished my cake, someone came around and asked if I would now take to the stage and play.
It was a tremendous stage, wonderful lighting, I felt the room to be completely laid back in a way that I had not at first imagined. But the class singing and dancing acts were so Chinese and classy that I still wondered what I could possibly sing from my repertoire to not feel like the French proverbial “hair on the soup.”
No problem, I finally decided. This is too much fun, and as it turned out, I had noticed a table of several young European women sitting not far from mine, and I was sure that if the Chinese could not relate to my songs, they certainly would be able to.
So I went on stage and found my guitar dreadfully out of tune after I had forgotten that Joe Chou had done an open tuning the night before and I had not touched it since. But the musical director of the Dreams of old Shanghai immediately plugged in my guitar and got a mic stand for me – remember, they did not even know that I sang and played at the same time, let alone how good or bad I might be! – and I got the guitar tuned and lept right into “What’s Up!” I then did “Father and Son.”
I think I left it at the two songs, but it was clear that it went over wonderfully. The musical director played a percussion machine, the crowd clapped and sang along, and at the end, one or two of the beautiful Chinese singers who I liked to imagine had been looking at me came up on stage and offered me red roses.
So I go back to my seat and quickly, I get a signal from one of the European women. So I join them, and it turns out, of all things, to be a table full of French expats working in Shanghai. So we drink and talk and the Chinese stage show goes on. But then the Frenchwomen request of the management that I return to the stage and do more songs.
Management accepts, and I go up and do “Wicked Game,” then “Mad World,” and they request an encore, so I decide finally to do one of my own songs, and I do, “Borderline.” This time during the singing the management brings up some massive flower in a tall pot and vase contraption, and then I am joined by one of the singers who brings me a rose and dances beside me as I play. The a couple of the other show girls comes up and give me roses.
I don’t want to overstay my welcome, so I get off the stage, go back to the table, and the restaurant manager comes over and tells me he is offering me the food and drinks I had that night, and would I like a glass of red wine….
They then invited me back to play again tonight!
Now who would have thought, who ever would have thought that this posh, cool, and very traditional Chinese place would be so “arms open” to a complete stranger with a guitar to take time on its stage and perform. And then actually encourage more of it?!!? Absolutely wonderful. It was just the kind of experience I crave in the musical adventure, the kind that changes my ideas and preconceptions about a people, a city, a country. To say nothing of what I can do with my own music and where it can take me, and I must never give up hope about seeing fun opportunities arise.
This is clearly a very open and wonderful restaurant. Check out the videos for yourself, and try to imagine me on that stage. Could be difficult! It was so dreamlike and wild and unimaginable that I had that moment wondering if I had, in fact, once dreamed about alighting in an unknown world and being invited on stage and feted like a star. I do remember such a dream about suddenly finding myself playing like Jimi Hendrix, but I am certain that one will never come true….
As regular readers of this blog may have noticed, I try to update the blog every day, and rarely go more than two days without a post. Unfortunately, I have so much to write about and have so little time at the moment that I will have to put off writing until tomorrow. But the post will potentially cover the activities of my last two nights and whatever happens to night. I have had little time because I performed at two open mics on Monday night in Paris and then traveled to Shanghai via Dubai and last night performed at an open mic in Shanghai, and interviewed the organizer. So I will report on all that and what I do tonight in Shanghai, and I will make available my podcast with the Shanghai guy, as part of my year’s new project of podcasts at the open mics around the world. Stay tuned!
First, a word of warning: The following blog post is far, far, far too long. But I had more than an hour to kill in the back seat of a taxi during a manic drive up the emergency lanes and down the soft shoulders of the off ramps from downtown Shanghai to the Formula One circuit. So my pen went wild – or rather my fingers, my verbal diahorea – and I just spewed out every thought that came into my head.
The Executive Summary would read this way: Went back to Oscar’s Pub and got a chance in a lifetime to play as a quartet with Paul Meredith and Tom & Jerry from Inner Mongolia. Tom played mandolin and violin and Jerry played banjo. Paul played guitar and sang, and I played guitar and sang. We did some of their songs and some of the ones that I usually do. I had the time of my life playing a full set of probably 40 minutes with this trio at one of Shanghai’s best known, best loved, expat bars – with a Chinese touch.
My only regret was that I did not record any videos of me playing with the band. On the other hand, Paul has invited me back again tonight to play with the band, and I will probably take up that offer, and make some videos.
In the meantime, I’m putting in three videos below to show the range of what unlikely and unusual and cool band does. Beneath the three videos the nut cases among you – like me – will want to read my more than 2000 word report written during the mad taxi ride to distract myself from the fast-moving, ever dangerous, fear-inducing scenery unfolding outside the windows of the run-away cab. (By the way, in the second video, a member of the pub crowd got up to sing with Paul & the Mongolians – showing the casual nature of this set at Oscar’s.)
And here is the far too long post that I wrote in the cab, and which really belongs in the book section of this blog, but which will just be a “bonus” of this post: