On Friday night, Jan 5, I headed over to Yuyintang to see the much touted Beijing rock band WHAI. Yuyintang has long since established itself as the most enduring and successful rock-oriented club in Shanghai. It is a small venue in front of a parkland that squeezes around 200-250 people max into its tight quarters, and puts them in very close proximity with the bands on stage. In this respect it reminds me a lot of the club 2 Kolegas in Beijing, which operated from around 2005-2014 before being shut down after a police drug raid. Speaking of which, the drummer for the band WHAI is none other than 2 Kolegas co-founder Liu Miao, who I met ten years ago while filming the Beijing rock scene. It was thus great to not only see a much more mature Liu Miao playing in this band, but also to catch up with him briefly after the performance was over.
The band serves up a combo of rock and electronic music and has been dubbed ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-Garden in the media—both are broad terms that seem to describe most of what the Beijing scene has produced over the past years. The lead singer and guitarist Zhang Wei also doubles on the midi-controller, and band mate Mickey Zhang plays midi keyboard as well, cranking up electronic jolts and grooves. Bassist Yu Qiao, a stunning female presence on stage, provides a steady thrum at low registers, while Liu Miao keeps up a very strong and rhythmic beat behind them.
The overall result is transportive—the band definitely lives up to its hype of creating a dreamy, hypnotic, psychedelic sound. There’s also some straight up rock and even folk thrown into the mix with Zhang Wei on guitar. Whether or not the recordings hold up I don’t know, but live on stage with a good sound system, this is a great band to see. The audience was as always a healthy mix of foreigners and Chinese (mostly the latter) and largely a youthful crowd (I’m feeling more and more like a dinosaur when I attend these sorts of events). The club has seats in the back but near the stage it’s standing room only, and folks were swaying and shaking to the music as if in a trance. The lighting was also cool with a mix of blues and reds, which made it hard to capture images of the band, but I managed to catch a few good ones on my SLR.
The concert lasted over an hour, with at least one encore, and afterwards people headed out to other venues while a few diehard fans stayed on to chat with the band. In the back yard area fronting the park behind the club, I caught up briefly with Liu Miao and finally had the chance to slip him a copy of our film Down in which he appears in at least one very humorous scene.
Afterwards, I caught a Didi cab over to the new JZ club in Found 158, which is quickly becoming the new nightlife haven for Shanghai’s youths. The sunken mall formerly known as Datong Mills was a huge failure for many years, but recently it was revived with a number of bars from the defunct Yongkang Lu bar street joining together with JZ and some other joints to create a nighttime paradise for laowai and trendy young Chinese. This space fits into the government’s policy to ‘tame’ nightlife by moving it from untrammeled bar streets which arose organically (like Yongkang Road or the now legendary Maoming South Road) into areas that are away from residences and don’t block traffic or become an eyesore. James Farrer and I have seen this phenomenon grow over the past two decades and we cover it amply in our book Shanghai Nightscapes.
I arrived around midnight at JZ, just in time to catch up briefly with jazz singer extraordinaire, Coco Zhao, whom I’ve known since 1997 when I first lived in Shanghai. Over the years he has mellowed and matured like a fine whiskey (he’d kill me if I said cheese : ) and on Friday night he joined the JZ Big Band to sing a few classic tunes including “Love Me or Leave Me” which included a very impressive scat (he’s become a great scatter over the years) and a very sad and soulfully slow rendition of the torch song “Cry Me a River” as well as a more upbeat version of the sultry, saucy old tune about a love affair, “Invitation” which backed by the full jazz orchestra sounded superb. He continued with another slow tune, a deeply felt rendition of the song “My Funny Valentine” and ended with a very modern jazzy version of the classic old Shanghai tune “If I didn’t have you” 如果没有你，日子怎么过？which featured a fine sax solo by the lone female saxophonist in the band Chen Xinlu and a dreamy piano solo by veteran of the Shanghai jazz scene, Huang Jianyi, who was also supplying some alternative chord changes that gave this old tune a much more contemporary jazz feel.
After the concert, I caught up with bandleader and saxophonist Alec Haavik before calling it a night. Alec told me he would like to make the Big Band a regular event at JZ, and I totally back that. To be honest, as I told Coco and Alec after the show (they asked!), the band did sound like it needed some more time to really gel—and as Alec concurred, with so many new players joining recently, that’s inevitable. And I’m sure that will happen if the band gets a regular weekly gig at JZ.