A Week of Musical Magic in Shanghai

As anybody who knows me, my work, and this blog already understands, I am a big supporter of live music, particularly the intimate sort where the musician and audience form a tight, magical circle.  In my film Down: Indie Rock in the PRC, I claim that rock musicians are the shamans of our age--but this holds true of all great musicians.  They take us on magical journeys deep down into our collective souls.  A great musician or band can induce a trance-like state in the audience, even if one is still aware of one's surroundings and isn't conscious of where one is being carried.  Musicians inherit from a tradition of storytelling and performance stretching back into our prehistoric times, and the stories they tell and the magic they weave through their voices and instruments embody our collective heritage as human beings.  

Making good music is like making magic.  And I have been enchanted by many a great musician, but rarely in such a dense and concentrated musical tapestry as over the past week.  

Mao and the Mountain Men

It all began last Friday March 25 when I attended the opening night of the new Mao Livehouse.  The featured band that night was Shanren 山人 or "Mountain Men", a band from Yunnan who like so many others have made their career in Beijing.  I'd seen this band before, first at the Rockit Festival in Shanghai in 2007 and then in an intimate performance in 2009 at the Jianghu Bar, one of my favorite live music spots in Beijing (it's in the same alleyway off of Nanluoguxiang as the Central Drama Academy).  They were good back then, but this time they blew us all away with their music and their energetic and fun performance style, set against a dramatic visual backdrop provided by the club's enormous LED screen behind the stage.  The band uses a combination of modern and traditional instruments and the music is a blend of good ol' rock and roll or reggae-like tunes with both traditional "mountain songs" and parodies of revolutionary music from the PRC.  These guys really know how to put on an act.  The whole band joins in the chorus backing up the lead singer.  They sing and dance on stage in unison--it's a great performance.  They also know how to rile up a crowd.  The audience of mostly Chinese youths was pretty tame and subdued at first, but over time they warmed up and started to dance, goaded on by the lead singer.  Here's a promo photo of the band and an accompanying interview of Shanren by Smart Shanghai for those interested in learning more about them.

Weaving Magic with the Bluesmen on the Bund

After the enchantment of Mao and the Mountain Men, we visited the House of Blues and Jazz, an elegantly appointed bar and music club on Fuzhou Road near the Bund.  A blues band was performing that night, with a female singer who belted out Bonnie Raitt style tunes with great gusto.  Then a black blues harpist with a patch on his eye and a porkpie hat on his head got up on stage and carried us on a magical journey deep into the tangled Delta of American history.  I found out later that this man is Charlie Sayles, one of America's great living blues artists.  He was backed by a powerful blues guitarist and an equally talented bassist.  For blues fans in Shanghai this is a show not to be missed.

 An Intimate Evening with Doc Watson, Robert Johnson, and Zhou Chao

On Wednesday, a colleague and old friend named John Crespi invited me to join him for an evening guitar jam.  John, who teaches at Colgate, is living in Yunnan for a year but makes an occasional research trip to Shanghai.  We met beneath the statue of Nie Er on the corner of Fuxing Road and Huaihai Road, and hung out at the Boxha Cafe up the road for a couple of hours while we waited for John's friend, Matt Forney, to join us.  John pulled out his old weathered Gibson acoustic and started to play.  I hadn't heard him play before.  It turns out that John is a master of the old finger picking styles exemplified by men like Doc Watson.  He's also well versed in traditional Irish tunes.  And he has a deep, mellow and understated voice that draws you in to the stories he's telling through song.  Hearing him speak or sing, one is reminded of the adage:  if you want people to listen, speak in soft low tones.  Matt eventually joined us.  A longtime journalist living in Beijing, Matt has a much more flamboyant personality and a guitar style to match.  We met up with a mutual friend named Melanie and spent the evening playing tunes in her garrot apartment overlooking that same street corner, accompanied by several wild cats and a lovely little Tibetan Spaniel.  Surrounded by crystals and Buddhist mandelas, John and Matt spun a web of magic.  Matt, playing an old Martin, favors good old rock and blues tunes, and does a great impression of Robert Johnson.  He also performed a fantastic solo rendition of Paul Simon's song "The Boy in the Bubble."  Eventually we were joined by my friend Zhou Chao, a local musician and master guitarist, who has developed his own unique fingerstyle that combines blues and rock with traditional styles more associated with the Pipa, a Central Asian instrument.  I had foolishly neglected to bring my own Martin but borrowed John's guitar and strummed along and attempted a solo or two, but my skills aren't up to par so mostly I just sang along with them and shook an apple-shaped maraka.  After going through a litany of blues, jazz, and folk tunes that stretched through American history and beyond, Zhou Chao took the floor and ended the night with a long extended solo improv that carried us on camels deep into the Taklamakan and across the Silk Road to Arabia.

 An Imperial Tour of Jazz and Blues in Shanghai

I have affiliated with Imperial Tours, an elite tour guide agency that operates in China.  Together we have worked out a jazz tour of Shanghai.  Thursday night was my first chance to try out this tour with a pair of American travelers visiting the city for the first time.  They met me at the Paramount Ballroom, where I gave them a tour of both dance establishments that are located there, comparing the place now to what it looked like in the '30s with a set of photos I'd brought along.  After talking with them about the Jazz Age of the 1920s and '30s and checking out this living legacy of Old Shanghai, and watching the elegant ballroom dancers both young and old fox-trotting and salsa-ing to music from an age gone by, we headed over to the JZ Club on Fuxing Road where we caught an act called the Illusion Trio.  Oleg Roschin, an Israeli pianist, leads the trio.  When we entered the sunken club and sat down at a table by the piano, they were playing a mellow song.  But they ended their session with a fantastic upbeat rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Rhythm-A-ning", where the pianist let loose on the keys with tremendous energy, moving effortlessly up and down the range of 88 keys.  After that performance was over, we walked down the subdued French Concession street to the corner of Huaihai and Fuxing Roads where we visited the Cotton Club.  As expected, guitarists Greg Smith and Matt Harding were holding court on stage, accompanied by a Chinese trumpet player.  Matt was singing the blues and he and Greg were exchanging solos with the horn player.  We left during their break but not before chatting briefly with Matt and Greg, the club's musical founders and two of the staunchest supporters of live jazz and blues in the city.  Finally we headed to the Bund where we caught Theo Croker and his Sextet at the famous Peace Hotel Jazz Bar, blowing into the wee hours of the night.  All I can say is, what a night, and what a job!

Celtic Fiddle and Mongolian Mandolin

On Friday evening, after a very busy day leading a tour of the Bund and the Shanghai History Museum for one group of students and a seminar on the Mao Years for another, I made my way to the TwoCities Gallery in the Moganshan Lu Arts District.  Had I been faithfully keeping up this blog all along I would already have posted on many great concerts that have been held there over the past few years, many involving my piano teacher Steve Sweeting.  This was no exception, though this evening Steve was not the center of attention but rather one of many accompanists.  Instead the spotlight focused on Hanneke Cassel, a Boston-based fiddler who wowed the hugely packed crowd with her renditions of old Irish and American folk tunes.  She was joined on stage by a Mongolian mandolinist named Peng Peng who traded solos and harmonizations with her.  Steve accompanied her for a few songs including an original called Nanjing Noises (or something to that effect...correction welcome!).  Just another great performance of intimate music in a city that is drawing an ever greater variety of world-class musical talents.  

Thus ends the musical journey.  For now.  Stay tuned for more, as we experience the arrival of none other than Bob Dylan, followed by a night with the hardcore homegrown rock band SUBS and a special preview screening of our film Down:  Indie Rock in the PRC!